Never let the opposition define you. Keep your sponsors well informed and happy!
In the first part of this three part series, I wrote about your internal stakeholders, your team. In this article, I am going to explain the importance of communication with your external stakeholders.
During interviews, people ask me all the time what I feel is the most vital part of project management and leadership. Hands down, I answer that while all facets of project management and leadership are important, the most important skill that a project manager or leader can possess is communication skills.
It is said that a project manager spends 90% of their time communicating. In fact, project communication is so vital that it really encompasses two entire knowledge areas in project management; “Project Communications Management” and “Project Stakeholder Management”. The two go hand-in-hand. It is my opinion that the Project Management Institute (PMI) should reorder the Guide to Project Management Body of Knowledge (or PMBOK for short) to list the chapters regarding project communication or stakeholder engagement together.
A stakeholder is any person, internal or external to your project or organization that has an impact or perceives to have an impact on your project. This includes yourself and your team members. In this first article in a series of articles on project communications management, we will discuss leadership and project management communications internal to your team.
Why is it so important?
Before we get started with this answer, the two types of stakeholders I am going to write about today are key internal stakeholders and those external stakeholders that are key to the success of your project externally- often times negative stakeholders.
The answer to the internal stakeholder question, especially key internal stakeholders is more obvious. The sponsor of your project, whether it be internal to the organization or a client which then becomes “internal” is to keep them satisfied. The more expensive the project the more crucial this is.
With Agile project management, this is easier as deliverables are being produced with each sprint. The sponsor is seeing real time incremental deliverables.
With old school Waterfall project management, communicating progress, status, setbacks (being upfront with a correcting plan of action), etc. is vital. This is why you are seeing more and more webcams that can be viewed to see the status of a large construction project. Those with financial interest in your project deserve to know the continuous status of their investment.
If you have taken a project management boot camp, you learn that there are three types of communication. Push, Pull, and interactive. Push communication is what you are sending to your key stakeholders. This information is pushed via targeted communications using the telephone, hosting progress meetings, or frequent email updates. This is the type of status communication Amazon Prime sends you when you order a product. Pull and interactive communication will be discussed later.
I often state that no one notices when a project goes off without a hitch. But as soon as the scope, schedule, cost, and/or quality starts veering in the wrong direction, everyone notices! This is why frequent communication is key! To brief current status and set expectations (good or bad) for what lies ahead. To address issues early on when the cost of change is lower!
External stakeholders are often forgotten in the beginning of a project until a negative stakeholder rears its ugly head. A great example is happening now in the most affluent county of West Virginia.
In Jefferson County West Virginia, a rural (but growing) bedroom community in the far reaches of the Washington D.C. metro area, a Danish company named Rockwool International is building an insulation manufacturing plant. Government leaders hailed the selection of Jefferson County for a manufacturing company to set up shop in an area in need of the 150-200 high paying jobs. Creating Rockwool insulation on 130 acres of land would be a big boom to the thriving economy of an otherwise rural and poor state. So what could go wrong?
A grass roots environmental movement began lobbying the local community to resist this “polluting” plant. A website was setup called “ToxicRockwool.com” and before you knew it, there were yard signs everywhere saying “Say no to Rockwool”. For months, the messaging went largely unabated. A poor example of a poor project communications.
This article is no way taking a position on the merits of the debate, only to show that Rockwool did not plan for risks of negative stakeholders nor did they effectively get in front of the environmental concerns. They could have planned for this risk by grassroots communication.
Maybe their counter-message is that they are a Danish company who live by more stringent European pollution controls than the USA. Or they will be creating jobs and a new tax base for better schools and roads in Jefferson County. How about that they will be transparent and will not just meet, but will ensure that they are 85% below the USA standards of pollution and exceed pollution mitigation standards set forth by the government?
Several months later, Rockwool is trying to play catch up with a few yard signs welcoming Rockwool. But like in politics, the first to define their opponent in the eyes of the public usually wins.
Another method of communicating to large external audiences is also through effective pull communication. Develop an website (with great SEO) to counter negative messages and to define your positives upfront. Pull communication is posting information for internal or external stakeholders on a hub (Sharepoint or a website) in order to effectively communicate your progress, assuage fears, reduce rumors, etc. This information should be posted and updated at regular intervals such as weekly at a certain time.
Finally, the third type of communication is “interactive”. Internally, this many mean update meetings or the daily stand-up in scrum. Externally, this could be town-hall meetings to garner buy-in.
Plan your communication and execute the plan
But communication must be thought out. Not all clients or stakeholders like email. Some prefer text. Some prefer to have a meeting weekly or even twice weekly. How about time zone differences on international projects? You must also consider which information must be held secret and who is privy to what information while attempting to be transparent with external stakeholders. This must be thought out and planned for upfront and updated as new information arises.
In initiation, project managers develop the project charter and then immediately identify all the stakeholders. Remember, stakeholders are anyone internal or external to the project that are affected by, or perceive themselves affected by the project. Project managers brainstorm all the possible stakeholders or groups and list them on their “stakeholder register”.
Immediately following this step, the project manager should start analyzing these stakeholders and plotting them (with code identifiers in case of a document leak) on salience models, power-interest grids, etc.
Once this is complete, a communications management plan should be developed along with a risk management plan in order to mitigate threats and capitalize on positive stakeholders. Each stakeholder or group should be charted on a “Stakeholder Engagement Assessment Matrix” and updated as needed.
Points of caution
In today’s climate of transparency, social media, and even Agile, it is also important to have a communication policy for on and off duty communications. Especially in an Agile environment where communications are delegated to self-forming teams!
How many examples have you heard of where an employee loses their job because they said or posted something stupid, racist, etc. on their own social media? Why? Because as a member of an organization or project, their personal communications may affect their organization as well!
It is important that a communications policy exist (where allowed) that addresses professional communications on the job and locking down social media off the job.
Like team member communication, stakeholder engagement is vital. This includes the key internal stakeholders (i.e. keep them satisfied that their investment was worth it) and external stakeholders (i.e. assuage their fears and win the messaging up-front).
The worst thing any project manager can do is keep information in the dark and allow others to effectively define your project for you. Plan your communications and communicate effectively.
Nathan J. Kerr, MS, PMP is the co-owner and founder of PMCertDC – Washington D.C.’s metro area premier project management boot camp provider. With our primary location in Tysons, Virginia, we hold classes throughout the Washington D.C. metro area and anywhere online.
We are a proud Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned Small Business with a huge impact on the project management world. Visit us at https://pmcertdc.com
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