Hand drawing a game strategy with white chalk on a blackboard.

HR professionals will agree that stakeholder engagement is key to securing a successful change initiative or project outcome. Yet in the real world too many projects continue to fail. The usual suspects – lack of time, planning or money are listed often listed as key reasons, however more recently many managers are now stating that weak stakeholder communications is contributing factor. This may be because projects are now being managed across more fragmented or skilled based teams who are no longer based in a single location teams – but what is clear is that many organisations are starting to view strong communications skills on par with other technical and business skills.

Mainstream definitions of projects have not adequately stressed the importance of change. The BS6079 standard defines a project as a ‘unique process, consisting of a set of coordinated and controlled activities with start and finish dates, undertaken to achieve an objective conforming to specific requirements, including constraints of time, cost and resources’. The PRINCE2® framework says: ‘A project is a temporary organisation that is created for the purpose of delivering one or more business products according to an agreed business case’. Yet the sole purpose of the project is to enable change and this is undoubtedly effected by stakeholder engagement.

The devil is in the detail

According to the Project Management Institute research, organisations that ‘under-engage’ their stakeholders tend to see them as ‘recipients of change’ – these may be stakeholders such as employees or customers – either resisting or accepting change, but not committing to the change without additional support from the organisation. In fact, only 25% of employees in these organisations ever fully commit to a specific change, with the remaining 75% simply accepting or resisting the change.

Organisations spend a lot of money gauging whether not their external communications, marketing and PR are working. If they spent even a fraction of that on stakeholder engagement communications, chances are that the products and services they brought to market would be very much enhanced. Communication should not be an afterthought and must be a fundamental part of any project – a distinct work stream that is expected to take time and effort. Only when stakeholder engagement is put at the heart of project management will we see a real increase in the number of successful project outcomes.

However, HR professionals already have a myriad of responsibilities within an organisation – and that list seems to be ever increasing. This begs the question, what can HR professionals do to support their workforce without over complicating the project delivery process?

Taking a proactive approach

There are four steps to effective stakeholder communications planning – strategy, plan, action, measure (creating the acronym Spam).

1. Strategy: Start by identifying all the stakeholders, understand what each one of them wants from you and prioritising their needs. This is about setting clear messages – and the impact the proposed outcomes will have on each specific audience.

2. Plan: Plan to resource communications in the same way that you would resource any other part of the project. Ensure the time and skills requirement for communications are planned for – for every phase of the project who is doing what when it comes to stakeholder communications? When are they doing it? As with all other aspects of project planning, drill down into the detail of costing stakeholder communication and making it happen. If organisations invest in planning and resourcing communications, making sure that the right people are in place and building on lessons learnt on previous projects, the likelihood of making mistakes is greatly reduced.

3. Action: This stage is commonly viewed as the core stage of the project where plans are put into place and the project is work through to completion. Stakeholder communications continue to be important during this stage to keep everyone updated and to flag up clearly any issues.

4. Measure: The measurement stage is arguably the most critical, evaluating that communications are working by employing some kind of feedback loop to check that people have understood communications. It is important to build in a mechanism for people to respond and acknowledge that they have read and understood what you are saying to them. This may mean requiring high-level stakeholders to sign documentation to establish that they have read and understood it. This is particularly vital when sending out communications that are flagging up issues with the project.

Real change only happens when the people are both willing and able to use the output of the project. That is the true measure of success yet most project success metrics are focused on delivery. In fact, there’s no such thing as an IT or retail project, all projects are about people. And these individuals will only be willing to use the output of a project if communication has been effective at the very start of the process. Therefore, stakeholder engagement can no longer be treated as an afterthought, but rather a starting point for busy managers.