Stakeholders can have the power to turn your project into a soaring success — or send it crashing down to the ground. They are, in other words, a linchpin for your project, an essential factor you must know how to manage, involve, and engage at every step.
Fortunately, doing so doesn’t have to be thought of as a chore. The process of building and implementing a strong stakeholder engagement strategy can help you create a framework for a more cohesive team, more involved clients, and more effective communication throughout your company. In short, it is an intelligent and holistic way to produce results.
What is stakeholder engagement?
Stakeholder engagement is the process of listening to, informing, collaborating with, and otherwise involving the stakeholders in a project. Its purpose is to determine the most important priorities, establish the most effective forms of communication, and build trust with your stakeholders.
Of course, the definition of a stakeholder can depend on who is defining it. For our purposes, we are referring to any person, group, or entity that has an interest in a project or will otherwise be affected by it. This could refer to clients, your own team members, or a third party that your client and team are collaborating for (e.g., an interest group).
Stakeholder engagement vs engagements with stakeholders
Note that a group of engaged stakeholders is different from engagements, or specific meeting touch points with stakeholders, like a client kickoff call or working session.
Why you should prioritize stakeholder engagement
Prioritizing stakeholder management and engagement at your organization isn’t just good practice. Done well and it can produce some of the following tangible benefits.
Reduce potential risks and conflict
One of the core tenets of stakeholder engagement is its focus on building productive relationships. It accomplishes this through a variety of strategies, such as involving stakeholders throughout the project, coming up with clear communication plans, and gaining buy-in at every step. All this helps reduce the chances of client dissatisfaction, team uncertainty, and other common project roadblocks.
Improve decision making
Good stakeholder engagement empowers decision-makers to assess situations, solve problems, and get work done. This is because the act of engagement helps foster connections and clarify the direction the project should head in order to accomplish its mission and goals. Everyone feels more free to point out potential issues and make contributions in order to achieve their shared goals.
Increase the pace of progress
By helping to remove common roadblocks, encouraging open lines of communication, and putting in place a clearly defined decision-making process, a successful engagement strategy can act like oil in the gears of your project. Everyone will understand what their roles are and how they can make the largest impact. As a result, you’ll be able to move much faster toward your project’s success.
12 tips to build stakeholder engagement
There are many ways to create a successful stakeholder engagement plan. The most effective methods will ultimately depend on the unique needs of your organization, client, team, and any other stakeholders involved. That said, the following tips are a good place to start, whether you’re just launching a project or are looking for ways to refresh.
1. Understand how your stakeholders will be involved
A smart first step you can take toward improving engagement is understanding exactly who your stakeholders are, what they want, and how they plan to contribute. You can do this by mapping your stakeholders. This describes the process of separating out different stakeholder groups of stakeholders according to their interest and influence. Often, this will give you four groups:
Low interest, low influence: Keep this group informed, but only with minimal contact.
High interest, low influence: Keep this group informed while monitoring them more closely.
Low interest, high influence: Regularly engage and monitor this group to keep them satisfied. Just don’t overdo it.
High interest, high influence: Actively engage this group regularly and share any and all information. These are your key stakeholders.
Get started quickly with the stakeholder mapping template
To successfully collaborate with clients or coworkers, it’s important for both of you to have an understanding of key stakeholders and how they will be involved throughout a project.
This template helps minimize confusion on who is who, clarifies responsibilities, and catalyzes a transition from strangers to collaborators.
Once you understand different stakeholder involvement, you’ll be better prepared to start coming up with engagement strategies that work best for each of them. Just remember: stakeholders are individual people, so think of your different groups as flexible and fluid, rather than set in stone.
This step can be done alongside your stakeholder map. As you separate your stakeholders out into groups, ask them questions in order to identify their key areas of interest and most important concerns. Make sure you gain clarity around these issues, and try to establish a sense of two-way communication so that you can continue to listen and clarify if and when their needs change.
3. Set expectations for stakeholder communication
Defining how and when you will communicate at the outset of a project can go a long way toward eliminating unnecessary friction. Try to strike a balance between the needs and preferences of your stakeholders with your own resources and capacity. And if you need to push back, explain and give reasons why in clear terms. Doing so will help build trust and transparency, contributing to more productive stakeholder relationships.
4. Leverage co-creation from the start
Make a strategic decision to involve (or at least invite) each stakeholder into the design and creation process. By doing this at the outset of a project, you can give them the opportunity to influence, envision, and create key solutions that answer their concerns and challenges. This will help ensure your stakeholders remain central and active contributors
5. Conduct regular check-ins
By setting a regular cadence of communication, you can stay on top of any potential issues, concerns, or risks before they turn into full roadblocks. These check-ins can take many forms, from all-hands meetings to leader alignment sessions to quick one-on-one conversations. You don’t even have to necessarily plan them — just make it apparent that you remain interested in hearing stakeholders’ thoughts, feelings, and opinions at every step.
6. Streamline the approval process
A complex or inefficient approval process can frustrate and disengage your stakeholders. After all, the last thing anyone wants to see is the hard work they’ve already put in getting hung up on last-minutes edits and conflicting feedback.
Avoid this altogether by coming up with a clear plan for approving deliverables. Ensure every stakeholder knows their role and is clear on the approval process so that you can eliminate bottlenecks, improve the process of getting buy-in, and ensure every deadline is met.
7. Hold small retrospectives after key project milestones
Seize the moment after delivery to regroup with your stakeholders. This can be an opportunity to celebrate a win and applaud individual contributors, or to analyze what could have gone better.
Most importantly, retrospectives can show you continue to actively listen and communicate to those involved with the project. Even if things didn’t go well, that can be enough to keep everyone engaged.
8. Identify possible points of disruption
The ability to anticipate where communication or processes may break down can be invaluable to maintaining active and engaged involvement. For instance, perhaps you recognize that the priorities of two different stakeholders are in conflict, or they both have very different styles of communication.
By planning for this beforehand and putting in place a solution, such as an intermediary to help them talk, you can keep the project’s momentum going.
9. Come up with a process for conflict resolution
Despite your planning and foresight, you should assume that a conflict will eventually happen at some point. But rather than be caught off guard, you can minimize any negative consequences from this by having a resolution process already in place.
You could even take this a step further by anticipating different types of conflict that are bound to occur, such as disagreements over pricing, processes, communication methods, and scope. This way, you can immediately direct your resources toward solving the issue and building consensus, rather than trying to find out what is wrong.
10. Look out for collaborative opportunities
Just as you should watch out for possible points of disruption, so should you pay attention to areas where you and your stakeholders could benefit. Perhaps two of you have complimentary skills or interests. Or maybe one stakeholder has access to a resource another could use.
Try to look out for and facilitate these partnership opportunities. Doing so can both strengthen your project and your stakeholder network.
11. Be selective about the tools you use
Just as important as the way you communicate and collaborate is how you do it too — and that means paying attention to your tools. For instance, marketing and email automation software can make it more efficient to stay in close contact with stakeholders, while document management and online whiteboarding platforms can make remote and asynchronous collaboration easier. Whichever tools you choose, just make sure all your stakeholders are aligned on using them.
12. Write out engagement reports and solicit feedback
After a project wraps and stakeholders disperse, don’t let any knowledge go away with them. Try to encapsulate what you learned in the process by drafting a report that details the efforts you made, what went well during the engagement process, and what may still need work.
Don’t forget to leave room for their feedback. Whether you solicit this through an open-ended reply form or a more specific survey, stakeholder responses can be invaluable.
Tips for getting feedback from stakeholders
Allow for anonymous feedback
Prioritize feedback based on stakeholder influence
Set up regular milestones and stages during which to collect feedback
Knowing how to turn your stakeholders into active and engaged collaborators is one of the most important skills you can learn as a facilitator. Not only can it help keep everyone involved happy, but it can also lead to more creative solutions, faster turnaround times, and a greater chance of project success.
David is a contributing writer at Mural, focused on covering collaboration, meetings, and teamwork. He's been working in the hybrid tech space for over 10 years and has been writing about it nearly as long. When he's not doing that, he's probably cooking up a meal.