In popular imagination, project managers spend their days managing budgets and tracking schedules, concerned only that a project be completed as quickly and as cheaply as possible.
While it’s true that project managers are often concerned with project timelines and expenditures, a truly skilled project manager considers other factors as well. Communications management, risk management, and stakeholder engagement are all crucial parts of the job.
This final point—stakeholder engagement—is often overlooked, especially by newer project managers who don’t always understand the power that stakeholders can hold over the success or failure of a project. Below, we explore the stakeholder engagement plan, review its key components, and walk through specific steps that you can take to draft one your very first time.
What is a stakeholder engagement plan?
A stakeholder engagement plan—also known as a stakeholder management plan—is a subsidiary document that is often created alongside the main project plan for a given body of work. It is a written document that is formulated before a project begins, and which is kept on file and updated over the course of the project as necessary. Its purpose is to identify a project’s key stakeholders, and to outline a methodology and approach for how the project team will interact and communicate with those stakeholders.
“Simply put, stakeholder engagement is about figuring out how to effectively communicate, collaborate, and interact with key people who have positive or negative influence, and may impact the success of your project,” says Tim Mills, a lecturer for Northeastern’s Master of Science in Project Management program.
Importance of the Stakeholder Engagement Plan
All projects include stakeholders. These are the individuals, often in management, who have an interest in the success of the project for personal and professional reasons.
Stakeholders can hold tremendous sway over how a project progresses. They authorize and allocate resources to the project, and may also decide to pause or stop a project completely if they feel that it is not delivering the expected or desired outcome. It is crucial that the project team outline a way of managing these expectations because all stakeholders will be engaged to a different degree, and may have their own motivations or expectations for a project.
“Communicating with the key customer is different from how we may communicate with the project team—who may be more interested in what they need to do to successfully complete the project,” Mills says. “The stakeholder engagement plan allows the project manager to devise a systematic approach to ensure expectations, decisions, risk/issues and project progress information is delivered to the right person at the right time with the most efficient and effective level of information.
What goes into a stakeholder engagement plan?
According to Mills, a stakeholder engagement plan will typically have three sections:
1. Stakeholder Identification
This section is used to identify all of the project’s stakeholders by name. At a minimum, the section also defines their roles and responsibilities as they relate to the project, but Mills notes that, in some cases, it can be much more extensive.
“A good stakeholder engagement plan would also categorize stakeholders by power, influence, relationship (internal or external), or any other category that might be useful for the project manager as they manage communications,” Mills says.
2. Planning to Interact with the Stakeholders
The next section is dedicated to actually determining how the project team will interact and engage with the stakeholders identified in the first portion of the plan. According to Mills, this will often involve a deeper assessment of each stakeholder, which will be used to inform the rest of the plan.
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“For example, we may assess the stakeholder by the level of perceived engagement,” he says. “Are they aware, resistant, neutral, supportive, or leading the project? This knowledge will help the project manager devise ways to engage stakeholders in a way that makes them more aware of the project’s critical issues, or to become more supportive to ensure project success.”
3. Stakeholder Engagement Activities
The final portion of the plan is essentially an outline of the various activities the project team will undertake to communicate with stakeholders, manage their expectations, and keep them engaged with the project. This includes activities such as pre-planned meetings with stakeholders or key reports.
“Having an outline of the known engagement activities helps the project manager and team to quickly sense and respond to the changing needs of the stakeholders,” Mills says.
This section of the document will also typically outline the types of communications that will be used throughout the project—including email, periodic meetings, conference calls etc.—and who each form of communication is best suited for.
“Often, we will develop an integrated stakeholder communications plan,” Mills says. “This plan focuses on what we will communicate, how we plan to communicate, and the frequency of those communications.”
How to Create a Stakeholder Engagement Plan
1. Identify your project’s stakeholders.
The first step in creating your stakeholder engagement plan is to clearly identify everyone who should be included. While there are multiple strategies you can use to create this list, Mills recommends starting with three specific tactics.
First, he suggests meeting with the project sponsor (the person responsible for the success of the project) in a one-on-one setting. Use this meeting to clearly identify their expectations for the project, as well as any risks or issues they may have with the outlined plan.
“Then, you can frankly ask them, ‘From your perspective, who are our stakeholders?’” Mills says. “Do your best to capture both the name and role of each individual.”
Mills also finds that you can get off to a good start by looking at a prior similar project and using it as a benchmark against your own. Evaluate aspects like:
- Who were the stakeholders in that project?
- Should they be involved in this one?
- If not, who are their counterparts that should?
- Was anyone forgotten in the first project, who you know should be included in this one?
Finally, Mills recommends creating a mind map, which is a visual representation of those who may affect the project.
“I use a technique called CPIG,” Mills says. “This involves categorizing project stakeholders into these four categories:
- Providers (such as vendors, consultants, etc.)
- Influencers (such as regulatory bodies and labor unions)
- Governance (the project’s decision-makers)
This can be an awesome way of quickly developing a comprehensive list of stakeholders.”
2. Develop and devise effective means of interacting with each stakeholder.
Armed with your list of stakeholders, you can begin to plan for how you will communicate and interact with each of the individuals you’ve identified. This plan should be tailored as necessary to each individual, taking into account their unique communication preferences as well as their level of engagement with the project.
In evaluating each stakeholder, Mills recommends assessing certain areas, including:
- What they already know about the project
- What they need to know
- Their power to affect or influence the project
- Their interest and sentiment toward the project
“[Often], I will set up a stakeholder workshop with my project team, which consists mostly of subject matter experts,” Mills says. “In that meeting, we have an open discussion to ensure that we’ve considered all of the stakeholders who may influence the project in any way.”
3. Document your work.
The final step in creating your stakeholder engagement plan is to actually document and codify the work. At this stage, Mills recommends that you share the document with your full project team so that everyone can verify and edit the collected information, and consider last-minute changes or additions.
“Most importantly, show your plan to the project sponsor for their review and sign-off,” Mills says.
An Integral Part of Project Management
Due to the influence and power that stakeholders hold over the success of every project, stakeholder management is a truly integral piece of what it means to be a project manager. Skilled project managers don’t just oversee schedules, resources, and budgets; they also seek to manage their stakeholders as much as is possible. If you are considering earning a degree in project management, it’s therefore generally a good idea to seek a program that includes an exploration of stakeholder management within the curriculum.
The Master of Science in Project Management at Northeastern, for example, is designed to educate students about all aspects of the discipline. Alongside practical project management training, this program includes courses on stakeholder management and communication, which focus on building specific skills that students will leverage throughout their careers.
To learn how a master’s degree in project management can help advance your career, download our free guide to breaking into the industry below.