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I was talking with a couple of people on a team that was trying to plan a complex project not too long ago. Everything was changing by the day, or it felt that way to them. I asked a couple of questions about some other people who I thought would be involved in the planning. The people I was talking with shrugged their shoulders, and told me that the bulk of the planning was falling on a very small group. They were working on task identification, but no one was thinking about stakeholder identification.

On projects today, it’s the people who will make or break your project. The problem with focusing on tasks before people is that you are missing out on valuable perspectives. It is critical that you identify stakeholders who could torpedo your project. Even if the bulk of planning falls on a small group, make sure you prioritize stakeholder identification.

Trained project managers understand the importance of identifying all the people and groups of people that you need to consider as your project goes from start to finish. Trained project managers document critical data in a stakeholder log or register and analyze these people and groups. They target their communications appropriately. Sometimes that means difficult face-to-face conversations, large community meetings, or high mailings/postage expenses.

In some projects, stakeholder communications will be a full-time job. In this blog, I will outline some suggestions that you can take early in the project to help ensure that you get this right. But don’t expect it to be quick and easy.

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Use a template or structure to frame conversations

I find it much easier to get work activities done when I have a framework within which to work. In his book, The Checklist Manifesto, Atul Gawande wrote about the need for checklists, which are a type of structure or template. We all need some framework within which to accomplish tasks. When your project is to create something new – seemingly out of nothing – it’s even more important.

In this blog, I’m simply focusing on stakeholder identification. Do you have a checklist of all the areas from which you might want to consider stakeholders? This is a checklist that your organization can use over and over – on all projects. For example, have you considered whether any government representatives, vendors, media, or competitors need to be considered as you begin to identify stakeholders on your project? Put together that checklist before you go too far.

Opt for a mid-size, diverse group to get the most perspectives

To organize your brainstorming process, schedule one or more meetings with a mid-size, diverse group. Look for people who can help you understand the different perspectives of people who are, in any way, associated with your project. This group may or may not need to meet after the initial stakeholder identification process. But it’s critical that you do this in the beginning.

Use a mix of group conversations and individual input

In any stakeholder identification brainstorming process, I recommend that you find a way to blend individual input with group conversations. I recommend this because these brainstorming meetings need to include more people to get different perspectives. But that makes it hard to effectively converse together. Some people will naturally tend to silence themselves. There can be a lot of reasons for this – ranging from introverted tendencies to a lack of confidence in one’s value to the process.

I have found a solution that helps here. Try using sticky notes – either the very large post-it paper that you can place on the wall or separate sticky notes. First, give participants the categories from your checklist. Then have participants suggest names of people who should be considered as stakeholders on your project. Begin the meeting by letting everyone make notes (either directly on the paper or using individual sticky notes) and put their initials next to names. Insist that everyone participate.

In the brainstorming process, gather data for stakeholder analysis

I am not planning to dig deeply into how to analyze stakeholders. Most of the time, I find that the problem is less about the analysis. It’s more likely a failure to even identify stakeholders adequately.

An important objective of this process is to figure out what kinds and frequency of communications you need to have with these people. Over the course of the project you will need to focus on building relationships with key stakeholders, removing communication barriers, and addressing conflict. And don’t forget to nurture your supporters.

In your stakeholder identification brainstorming meeting, ask participants to rank the influence and importance of each person or group. I’ll let you decide how complicated you want to make this, but I’d opt for a simple approach and focus on documenting what you learn.

Consider that there will be people or groups who can wreak havoc on your project if they are not kept in the loop. Remember that there will be people in this group who could help your project succeed if you communicate effectively. As you brainstorm the rankings for these people, consider how interrelated they are to the project and the inner circle of people connected to the project. Imagine how they will feel when project requirements/needs change.

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Understand management’s stance on transparency

Now that you have identified all your stakeholders, or tried to, you need to understand, for the purpose of designing your communications, what level of transparency is desired. I’ll let you decide whether to tie together your differing types of communications with your stakeholder analysis ranking.

One option is to create a five-scale stakeholder ranking and a five-scale communication scheme – offering increasing transparency as stakeholders have greater influence and importance. Only you can decide how to proceed here but think about the unintended consequences of what you plan to do. Transparency sounds great, until it doesn’t. Does employee compensation become public? Are you inadvertently publishing IT security protocols? What kinds of communications might go out that you might not want your competitors seeing?

Another option is to separate the multi-tiered communication plan from the stakeholder ranking. Generally, I find that the stakeholder identification brainstorming process informs both. You simply need to understand the amount of influence over and importance to your project that each stakeholder, or stakeholder group, has.

Use your risk management process to help with stakeholder management

I have written before about risk management and won’t dig too deeply here. But in your brainstorming process, I suggested that you identify data to help you down the road, as things change. In your stakeholder log where you track your stakeholders, you can include a comments field just to document learnings from this brainstorming meeting.

I also recommend that you enter risks into your risk log that are uncovered in this meeting. For example, did you learn that one major assumption on this project involves potential zoning changes? Enter that in your risk log.

Your stakeholder identification process is one of the most important steps you can take to ensure project success down the road. Don’t discount it. And if you need help with that, why not schedule a free consult with me? I’m happy to help.