Managing Projects When Stakeholders Have Different Goals10 February 2015

Project Management

Whatever type of project you work on as a Project Manager (PM), it is important to keep external stakeholders supportive and committed to the project, or at least not actively working against it.

This is true whether the stakeholders are commercial or government — and especially if your external stakeholders include both.

Today’s largest projects are often sponsored by government agencies — think national infrastructure or alternative energy efforts ­— but are executed, or at least used by, commercial stakeholders. Likewise, even the smallest projects often include some type of local government oversight and involvement. So it is important to know how to manage stakeholders in a mixed environment.

The first step is to understand stakeholders’ motivations. Often it will seem the commercial and government stakeholders will have conflicting goals and motivations. Some PMs will even see them as “natural enemies.” The stereotype is that commercial stakeholders often focus only on cost and schedule even if corners need to be cut, while government stakeholders are overly concerned with procedures and requirements no matter the cost and schedule overruns.

But this is an obvious overgeneralization. For example, in a clean energy infrastructure project, the government stakeholders may be almost exclusively focused on the cost of the project to meet an advertised cost/benefit ratio, whereas, the commercial stakeholders are concerned with demonstrating the viability of a certain technology so regulatory changes can be made.

Once the motivations are understood, the second step is for the PM to become part diplomat, part salesman to get buy-in from both sides. The sooner the buy-in can be obtained the better — the more the stakeholders see the project as “theirs,” the more likely the project will successfully weather setbacks and difficulties.

But this can present a problem in a mixed commercial and government environment. Often a commercial PM does not want to be involved in the early stages of government projects as they go through the slow bureaucratic start-up process. Yet this is precisely when commercial entities can provide the most valuable insight on the project’s requirements and possible range of solutions. Likewise, involving government regulators early in a commercial PM may prevent mountains of red tape and rework for a private enterprise later in the project.

The third step is to keep the lines of communications open between the stakeholders on either side of the commercial-government divide. Early buy-in will soon fade if the PM does not ensure the commercial and government stakeholders continue to communicate their concerns and viewpoints on the project. The PM will often need to be the conduit between the two sides to make sure each understands the other and is willing to accept the sometimes-difficult decisions a PM has to make to ensure the delivery of a successful project. If communication has been limited or non-existent stakeholders will not be willing to conduct the give-and-take needed to provide the PM flexibility to manage the project, and may result in a stakeholder derailing a project.

Conversely, open communications between both sides may result in innovative ideas that may resolve a previously intractable problem on a project (i.e., change or streamlining of a regulatory process, awareness of a technology development, etc.) and ease acceptance by the user and regulatory community once the project is ready for close-out.

A mixed environment of stakeholders is far more common than many PMs realize. But it need not be difficult to navigate through, as long as you keep your stakeholders’ motivations in focus, get early buy-in from both sides, and keep the lines of communications open through the PM between the commercial and government stakeholders.

North Star Group has navigated projects successfully both in the government and commercial arenas. Contact us to let North Star’s project management professionals help guide your projects to success.

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