Stakeholder engagement is crucial in business, especially when working on and developing software products. I previously wrote about this topic here. We aim to have stakeholders fully engaged throughout the duration of the project but often this is a challenge. I have some tips and also asked other product owners from our organization to provide their tools and techniques for stakeholder involvement and how to create a partnership for product success.
What tools or techniques do you recommend for stakeholder engagement?
A critical piece to stakeholder engagement is to get them involved right away and manage their expectations. When you begin the project, outline the expectations for the stakeholder as far as their time commitment, what decisions or meetings you expect them to be a part of, how they like to be communicated to and what is most effective way to do it. The deliverable of this meeting might take the form of a light-weight communication plan, setting up re-occurring meetings to ensure the time is on their calendars or sending weekly reports as an update. Setting the foundation and agreeing to how you will partner together early on will set the tone as you begin work and align expectations.
I also like to encourage some kind of one-on-one meeting between the product owner/project manager and the primary stakeholders or sponsors on a re-occurring cadence. During this time you can discuss project work, ask questions and also listen to their feedback or concerns and address them right away. These kind of activities will strengthen the trust and engagement the stakeholder has in the team and project. When you proactively discuss expectations on a regular basis together, your teams will have more clarity and your products are more likely to succeed.
The beginning of a project or engagement is the ideal time to set the precedent for positive engagement with stakeholders. A project kickoff meeting is a great forum for several techniques that can set the project up for successful client engagement. These can include:
- Identifying Key Stakeholders. Do you have the right stakeholders? Is there someone you missed who might alter project direction later? Is there someone who thinks they will be playing greater role than they should be?
- Set Expectations. Projects, especially agile projects, require constant communication to and from stakeholders regarding information, direction, prioritization, feedback, and decisions etc. The earlier the stakeholder knows how critical their engagement is to the project’s success, the better.
- Clarify Each Stakeholder’s Motivation and Goal. This will help you communicate the salient information to that stakeholder, especially how decisions made and information discovered impact their specific goals.
In addition to the kickoff meeting, there are several other techniques I recommend implementing:
- Evaluate Each Communication Style. Some people communicate better in person or the phone, others via email or instant message. Sometimes people like knowing when something is “due”, others find it offensive. Some people need a high level summary, while others need to know all the details before they can make a decision or feel informed. Try to adapt your communication style to best meet the needs of your stakeholder (instead of your preference). Tools like knowing the DISC profiles can be very useful in helping you adapt.
- Encourage Positive Behavior. I recently (re)learned this one from a coworker. When someone does something that was very helpful and moved you forward, let people know! This increases the likelihood that they will repeat the positive behavior in the future. Too often we focus on people’s failings. Let’s celebrate their successes too! Besides, when doesn’t a “kudos!” brighten your day?
- Be Present. Make an effort to attend some meetings in person early in a project (when possible). This will allow both you and your stakeholders to read non-verbal cues, which will help foster familiarity and trust.
- Frequent Touchpoints. Quick touchpoints frequently in the project allow information to be communicated to the stakeholder promptly. Like being present, it also helps foster familiarity and trust.
While I’ve found success using the suggestions outlined above, the most effective way I’ve found to build successful stakeholder relationships is to be genuine, reliable, and open. Most stakeholders will treat you as a partner when they consistently see over time that you care about their product, the goals they are trying to achieve, the people you are affecting, and the problem they are trying to solve
- How can you make each stakeholder a “success” through the project? The reason why this matters is these points are the things that they will hone in on when discussing their needs or when listening. We all are busy and we all have “zoned out” when things didn’t pertain to us at one point or another. Knowing what things will create impassioned, involved people and which things may seem “mundane” can make the difference between a truly engaged and involved project participant, and someone who is going through the motions.
- Determine if they are a stakeholder or a shareholder. Both have needs and wants of the project, but shareholders are monetarily invested, while stakeholders can be involved at every level of the effort including being the primary driver of the project. Often when you have multiple higher level “Stakeholders” you have a combination of shareholders and stakeholders.
- Let them know, and make them feel important to the success of the project. If they know that the success of something rests on their involvement and that success is a benefit, they will be more apt to be involved. They aren’t just wanted, they’re NEEDED, they’re a DRIVER of the project, they’re CRITICAL to the success.
- Learn to avoid “trigger” words or if possible re-defined said triggers. Trigger words shut down listening. Finding what words or phrases are a hurdle to communication and knowing how to avoid them or re-say them can go a long way toward positive engagement. If the word or phrase has to be used, do everything you can to redefine it.
In general, most of the time stakeholders are thrilled to be involved. So many are used to giving some input and having their idea disappear for a few months then reappear but not really match what they intended. Or just as bad, be exactly what they asked for but not what the customer or the business needed. When they are disengaged, the tool for me is really a conversation about how critical their feedback is to the success of a project. Regardless of how good a team executes, if what they are building doesn’t match the expectations of the stakeholders it’s going to be considered a failure. In hard sell situations, putting a dollar amount to a situation may cause a light bulb to flicker on. Is an hour or two of their time truly worth more than the monetary burn rate of an entire Scrum team? Everyone needs to help hold each other accountable in an organization for their role in ensuring value is being delivered to customers.
Do you have any tips or experiences to share on how you have fostered stakeholder engagement for your projects?