Working with Stakeholders – Communication and Collaboration

Every project has stakeholders. Whether they be individuals that are part of a broader cross collaboration effort, potential users of the end deliverable or simply members of the strategic organizational portfolio team, dealing with and fostering good communication with key stakeholders is essential.

With that being said, how is that best achieved? What are some of the key attributes of ensuring that communication between the stakeholders and the project manager is performed effectively? And how can one be certain that the environment being fostered is of the type that will ensure successful collaboration?

Identify the Key Stakeholders

While this may seem like a bit of a no-brainer, it is often surprising how often projects do not necessarily involve all the required stakeholders. This is often due to the fact that projects (especially new ones) do evolve to a certain degree in the initial planning stages. So a common trap that a project manager may fall into is simply accepting the initial stakeholder list as the default and not looking to expand or modify on it.

A few key questions the project manager may ask when attempting to identify the proper stakeholder list might be:

  1. Who has something to gain from this project?
  2. Who has some overlap with key attributes or deliverables of the project?
  3. Who is influential within the company?

Defining the stakeholders (as early as possible) will ensure that the project itself has the requisite interest and necessary backing to move forward effectively.

Active Engagement

Once the stakeholders are defined, the project manager needs to define an effective communication plan. By that, he/she should have an idea of how information is going to be shared and discussed as the project moves forward. Regular meetings with well drafted agendas are a necessity. Depending on the type of process being utilized, having periodic demos of the deliverable (if possible) are also an excellent way for the stakeholders to see the end result manifest itself. It will also enable them to have a more tangible frame of reference for discussion should issues arise with the core design or implementation of the end deliverable. Regardless of the way it is handled, it is imperative that stakeholders are consistently kept up to date on the progress of the project and brought in on a regular basis for discussions and follow-ups as things mature. One sidebar: I would not recommend simply relegating status updates to stakeholders simply in the form of emails. These can become monotonous and easily buried within the email piles of the various stakeholders. It also does not foster an effective active communication environment and as such, email should only be utilized as an ancillary communication conduit as opposed to the primary medium.

Social Media

With the modern advent of various new technologies, there are ways to handle effective cross collaboration and communication between individuals in the form of various Web 2.0 mechanisms. Wikis, SharePoint, social networking and other forms of online-based communication mediums offer an excellent way for more robust dialog to be handled. Furthermore, because various threads can be separated and running histories are always available, it is far easier to monitor dialog between individuals in this fashion than using things like email. Social Media is especially important when dealing with stakeholders located in disparate geographies, especially alternate time zones, which make live conversations via teleconference more difficult. (Or completely unfeasible) Note that while these new technologies afford a good mechanism for the project manager to leverage in maintaining active communications, one should not fall into the trap of simply accepting their functionality at face value. Social media and communication technologies, like email, should be a means to an end, not the end itself. And it is easy to fall into the trap of becoming so reliant on the existing technologies, that other more personal and interactive live methods of communication fall to the wayside.

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Running an Effective Meeting – Best Practices

Meetings are a staple portion of any project management’s day-to-day duties. Whether they be in-person meetings, off-sites, video conferences or teleconferences, the requirement for project managers to be able to both participate in and host meetings is a fundamental necessity.

With that being said, what are some of the key concepts and ideas that a project manager should be cognizant of when it comes to running effective meetings? What are some of the general best practices for ensuring that a meeting functions smoothly and ends effectively?

Key Point 1: The meeting is not about YOU

Being that project managers are generally tasked with running the meetings, they naturally are going to be the ones doing most of the talking. With that being said, a common trap that many project managers fall into is that they spend far too much time dominating the meeting to drive their particular points home, that other individuals that participate are felt left out. This can lead to lower meeting participation down the road (for repeat meetings) as well as the potential for missing key discussion topics or feedback.

Key Point 2: Have an agenda

While having an overly rigid meeting handled in a Draconian fashion is never wise, there is still a need for some assemblage of structure. As such, the project manager should ALWAYS have some level of an agenda to cover in a meeting. Without a clear set of discussion topic milestones, there is a strong likelihood that the meeting will result in too much nonsensical banter back and forth. Furthermore, the likelihood of having to organize follow-up meetings becomes more necessary since key discussion topics are not covered when they should have been. So while its important to give participants the opportunity to bring up their own topics, be certain that you at least have some form of key discussion points that need covering.

Key Point 3: The meeting is a team effort

A bit of a segway from point 1, the project manager should always strive to foster a meeting environment that is collaborative. Afterall, that is the primary reason for a meeting in the first place. Individuals with specific levels of expertise and knowledge in key areas are brought in to discuss certain topic points and come to a consensus as to how things should proceed. The main function of the project manager is to both bring ideas to the table and ensure that ideas brought in my participants of the meeting are also shared.

Key Point 4: The meeting should stay on topic

In many meeting situations, it is easy to stray off topic. This can occur when a particular discussion point is raised that acts as a catalyst for other areas of discussion. Now while it’s important to not stifle discussion, it is equally important to make sure that the key agenda points are covered. So when the meeting seems to be straying from its core agenda, the project manager must act as the referee, especially when the meeting has a finite time allotted to it. If discussion on a particular topic is outside of the scope of the current meeting, acknowledge that it will be addressed in a subsequent meeting and make sure to note it. That will ensure that meeting participants do not feel like they are wasting their breath when bringing up new topics of discussion.

Key Point 5: The meeting should produce something

Meetings are all about discussion and collaboration. However, they are meant to have some sort of an end result. If there are discussions to be had, decisions to be made or milestones to set, then those should be the success factors for the meeting. Many times, especially with recurring meetings, complacency can set in and meetings can just end up droning on and on. This ends up producing a malaise for the meeting participants and also leads to a tremendous amount of wasted time. The project manager running the meeting should have, in addition to the agenda, some key areas of closure listed. i.e. if there are decisions that need to be made, they should be made and not left to linger. The more drawn out the meetings become, the higher the likelihood of wasted effort and schedule slippage.