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Stakeholder communication: steps towards improvement

Often when phrases such as ‘stakeholder management’, ‘stakeholder engagement’ and ‘stakeholder communication’ are referred to people say, with a barely stifled yawn

yes, we know all about that and we have it covered.

But do they?

I have seen projects where key stakeholders have not understood project developments or, even worse, have not been made aware of them.  Somewhere along the line, communications with stakeholders had failed.

Having a good stakeholder communication process, and following it, is a great platform on which to build successful stakeholder communications.

But following a process alone is not enough.  To be most effective, a stakeholder communication process should be supplemented by good inter-personal communication skills.

In this post I will remind you of the classic stakeholder communication process and how to make it easy for you and your team to follow it.

I also draw upon personal experience to suggest how you can improve your inter-personal communication skills.  This is something I am still working on.  A definite case of continuous improvement for me.


Four fundamental steps in a basic stakeholder communication process.

Step 1: Identify stakeholders

Identifying stakeholders is the most basic thing to do when starting any project.  It is the first thing I ask my students to do on my legal project management certification course.

Working with a legal scenario, I walk students through a 12-step process for defining legal matters properly, and step one is identifying stakeholders and recording them.

For the record, a classic definition of stakeholders is they are

any persons, or groups, who have an interest in your project, are affected by it or can influence its outcome.


Step 2: Analyse stakeholders

All we are doing at this stage is asking questions about the stakeholders so we can understand them better.  Once we understand stakeholders better, we can then work out how to communicate with them effectively.


Step 3: Draw up a stakeholder communication plan

Now that we know the stakeholders, and understand them better, we can create a stakeholder communication plan with confidence.

Communication plans list the stakeholders along with the type and format of communication required, the delivery method and frequency.

By far the most common communication to start with is the project status update report.


Step 4: Execute the stakeholder communication plan

Following the plan should not be hard to do, especially if status update reports are easy to produce.


Implementing the stakeholder communication process

What can you do to make it easy to implement a stakeholder communication process?

Use time saving tools

Perhaps the most common reason given for not following through with a stakeholder communication process is that it appears too time consuming to set-up and apply.

It should not take long to complete a stakeholder register and basic stakeholder communication plan, especially if you have templates to hand to help with this (during my legal project management training course all attendees receive starter templates covering stakeholder communications and other aspect of project management).

Setting up templates in something like Smartsheet and other cloud based collaborative tools such as HighQ is quite straightforward too.  I mention this because increasing real-time collaboration is likely to be a feature of the world of work, including legal work, over the next few years.

This should not need to be said, but I will say it anyway: writing things down is not a waste of time.  For example, having a list of stakeholders to hand, along with their contact details, will undoubtedly save time during the project.


Watch out for excuses justifying non-compliance

The four-stage stakeholder communication process outlined above has stood the test of time.

So avoid excuses and stick with the process, as it (or something very like it) has been shown to work.

It can be tempting though to let things slip and justify slippage with what appear to be credible excuses.

For example, I have heard it said that ‘nothing of significance has happened since the last status report was sent out, so rather than bother stakeholders we can skip the next report’.

This can be insidious.  Soon the need for a significant event becomes a pre-requisite for sending out any status update report.  This means status report production and delivery can become irregular or ad hoc, which is not good.

I have never been on a project where nothing has happened between status reports.  Even if events reported on appear to be minor to you, they may not be to some stakeholders.  So keep to the status update schedule.

There are lots of reasons you should keep to your stakeholder communication schedule, such as:

  1. It reminds stakeholders of your project (yes, busy stakeholders can forget especially with internal process improvement projects)
  2. You are demonstrating your continued commitment to the project
  3. You have a regular means of reminding stakeholders what you want them to do next (often project delays are due to stakeholder inactivity)
  4. Perhaps most important, your communication may cause the stakeholders to reflect and contact you, which is great because the stakeholders are now demonstrating engagement with the project.


Enhancing the stakeholder communication process with inter-personal skills

Communicate with integrity

Project managers must always with integrity.  This includes not hiding bad news from stakeholders.

I have seen project teams so afraid of communicating bad news to stakeholders they have either not communicated the news or done so in such a way the communication was so vague as to be unintelligible.  To be fair, they were working in an organisational culture where, despite platitudes to the contrary, transparency was not always rewarded.

An important aspect of being a project manager is that you must be prepared to deliver bad news.  Projects never go perfectly to plan, so on every project there is always some bad news to convey.

Good project managers don’t simply deliver bad news and leave it at that.  They can always suggest how best to minimise the effects of project setbacks and how to re-group and move on positively.


Try to improve your writing

How clear, and concise, is your writing?  I am far from perfect, but I learned a long time ago the key to writing well is editing.

Editing takes time and effort.  Anyone can do it.  With practice, the editing process gets quicker.

For anything substantial and / or important, ask someone else to edit for you.  A fresh eye can work wonders.

There are lots of tools available to help us all improve our writing.  MS Word has tools built in and there are third party applications which plug into MS Word such as Hemingway or Wordrake that you might want to look at.


Use Graphics

This is a particular failing of mine.  I am not a visual person by nature.

Well-designed graphics, especially in project status update reports, can help turn data into information quickly.  Software applications such as MS Excel mean it is easy to create a wide range of charts to represent data points and insert them into status update reports.

If you are working in a reasonably sized law firm ask I.T colleagues for help with the production of status update report templates.  I’m sure they would love showcase their skills by, for example, extracting data from your practice management system and representing it visually.


Try to improve your public speaking

By ‘public’, I don’t necessarily mean speaking in front of large numbers of people (although there is that too).  Speaking in front of small groups of work colleagues can also be challenging for many people.

Low confidence, and even fear, of speaking in public can manifest itself in many ways, such as

  1. Speaking in groups as little as possible, especially to groups of senior stakeholders
  2. Trying to rush through spoken words so fast that listeners find it hard to absorb what is being said
  3. Avoiding eye contact with listeners (this is noticeable when speaking into a video camera too).

As with most things, the key to improving your speaking skills is to practice.  I joined my local branch of Toastmasters about four years ago and I have found it a great way to practice and improve my public speaking skills.  (It’s a pity about the name I think, as ‘Toastmasters’ for me conjured up an image of a fusty, secret, and rather weird, society.  Its not like that at all).


Continuous improvement

Stakeholder communications and its close cousin, stakeholder engagement, are huge topics which I have barely covered here.

Nevertheless I hope this article has prompted you to re-evaluate the effectiveness of your stakeholder communications and perhaps take steps towards improvement.


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