On a daily basis we deal with sophisticated technology and operations that take years to master, yet we stagger when we have to involve different stakeholders and ensure the communication flows smoothly between all involved parties. But why?
We met with Rosen Georgiev, who recently became Managing Director at Despark to hear his perspective on stakeholder management.
Rosen has been working in the IT industry for over 7 years, taking roles from product manager, project manager and director of operations in both tech and non-tech companies.
"What I’ve noticed during all those years, is that very often projects get stuck because of very simple (at first glance) and blatant reasons - communication issues," he shares.
Stakeholder management theory
The theory on stakeholder management is very extensive. According to the PMBOK Guide (Project Management Body of Knowledge), project stakeholders are “individuals and organizations that are actively involved in the project, or whose interests may be positively or negatively affected as a result of project execution or project completion; the may also exert influence over the project and its results.”
Stakeholder Management is defined as “the process of identifying the stakeholders, determining their requirements and then managing and influencing those requirements to ensure a successful project.”
The Project management community has also developed numerous frameworks and guidelines like stakeholder analysis and mapping, stakeholder registers, stakeholder engagement matrix and more.
All of these methods are extremely useful and efficient, and if implemented, would minimise the risk of bad communication between stakeholders, unclear decision-making roles or conflicting stakeholder interests. Most of these approaches focus on the idea that you can ‘manage your stakeholders' (to get them to do what you want). In reality, the stakeholder management plan is usually created at the start of a project and then filed away somewhere to gather dust.
Stakeholder Management in Software Development
Software development is a dynamic field where time is a very costly resource and the logic of “the early bird gets the worm” is believed to be true for many. New technologies emerge constantly and at a faster rate, while accelerating software development is still very hard to achieve.
Everyone wants to move fast, so some steps are cut out, while others are overlapped to get the project done quicker. One of these cutouts is adhering to the stakeholder management plan. Let me give you a few examples.
Common stakeholder management struggles
Onboarding stakeholders too late
A while ago, we worked with a logistics firm to rebuild their existing shipments portal. After extensive research, we decided to redesign the entire system logic and rebuild the informational architecture from the ground up. In the final sprints before product testing, the legal team from the client side was onboarded, and found out major inconsistencies between the new information architecture and internal legal regulations.
Unclear decision-making roles
In another occasion, we worked with a client that provided us with a single point of contact from their side - the respective Product owner who was also the brains behind the product we were building. In most cases, this makes our job easier because we don’t have to manage many stakeholders. This wasn’t the case, however, because it turned out the decision-making process on the client’s side was unclear, which meant client approvals were taking longer than expected, delaying the whole project.
Stakeholders having different goals
Here’s one more example: A common practice is to start designing only when all the content for an app or a website is available, although many times because of project deadlines the design and content creation phases overlap. Because those owning the project (usually Product manager or Product owner) and those creating the content are different stakeholders, they don’t always have the same goals (or schedules for that matter). When their goals don’t overlap, that means their priorities probably don’t overlap too. But designing a product without content could only be done to a certain extent. And this is where the project gets stuck again.
How to prevent stakeholders bottlenecks
In his vast experience, Rosen has had a fair share of situations where the team had to take additional steps to ensure the project is completed in budget and on time because of stakeholder complications. According to him, stakeholder management planning fails because of two main reasons:
People don’t have the necessary experience or knowledge about the importance of stakeholder management
There is not enough time to complete all proper stakeholder management steps
A combination of the first two
"Stakeholder management is underestimated as one of those parts that could be skipped to gain speed. And if this is your assumption too, that’s the first thing you need to change. Trust the theory and the lessons learned by others. Don’t take the shortcut, if you are not aware of the risks it bears. Make sure you ask the right questions and you ask them on time."
Who within the company is responsible for what activities?
Who needs to be consulted for what part of the project?
What will be the most effective methods of communicating with stakeholders?
How will the results be captured, tracked, reported and disseminated?
That’s just the tip of the iceberg but it’s a good start to prevent miscommunication with and between the different stakeholders. Apart from the existing theory, aiming for honest, immediate and close communication with clients is crucial for the success of any project. The more you communicate, the less chance there is for issues and delays to remain hidden.
Everyone looks for efficiencies and hacks to move forward. But Rosen's advice is this: don’t go for the shortcut at all costs - it will cost you a lot more in the long run to go back and fix things.