Project management: 4 tips for dealing with problem stakeholders

Left unmanaged, noisemakers can have a disastrous effect on project-based work.

by Ty Kiisel, @task - Recently I compared the value of the positive and collaborative relationship between a professional golfer and his or her caddie to a productive and rewarding working relationship with project stakeholders. However, there are some project managers that don't have that kind of relationship with stakeholders. Despite a project manager's best efforts to create a productive environment, when stakeholders become nothing more than noisemakers they can hurt morale, hinder performance, and ultimately put projects in jeopardy.

What is a noisemaker?

A noisemaker is someone who tries to influence a project or a project's outcome to a degree that is disproportionate to his or her role, and negatively affects project performance. A noisemaker might be a stakeholder who is not directly involved in the project, a team member who overrides customer input on requirements, a customer who attempts to dictate technical details, or even an end user who insists the functionality he or she needs receives attention at the expense of everyone else.

Left unmanaged, noisemakers can have a disastrous effect on project-based work.

How to manage noisemakers

The first step is to recognize the problem -- and this is a project-long exercise. The following four suggestions will help you deal with problem stakeholders:

1. Make sure every stakeholder has an appropriate way to participate and offer input. This could be as simple as holding public status meetings similar to the public stand-up meetings held by agile teams. A formal project issue request process is another option for containing a lot of noisemaker requests. Many organizations that have initiated a formalized feature request process find that the process alone keeps many noisemakers quiet.

2. Reach out to stakeholders early to avoid last-minute problems. Hopefully, cutting noisemakers off at the pass will prevent any damage they might cause later in the project. Organizations that have implemented a potential project review process that includes stakeholders throughout the organization are often able to address noisemaker issues early, before the project has even begun -- eliminating the need to address his or her issues once the project is underway.

3. Solicit the help of other stakeholders who can help turn a noisemaker into part of the team. Stakeholder allies from previous successful projects, working as peers with noisemakers, can successfully run interference for you on levels possibly above your pay grade. For example, it's sometimes easier for a CTO to quiet the noise created by a Director. This is why building positive relationships with stakeholders on every project and within every level of the organization is critical. With a little coaching from a superior, sometimes a noisemaker can become an asset to the project and a future ally.

4. If all else fails, work to isolate problem stakeholders as much as possible to minimize the damage. Unfortunately, sometimes there's nothing you can do with a stubborn noisemaker but make the best of it. Fortunately, those occasions are few and far between.

Managing stakeholders and stakeholder expectations is an ongoing challenge -- but critical to project success. Successful project management requires diligence, persistence, and tact when working with stakeholders -- and noisemakers. I have yet to meet a project manager who doesn't have to deal with noisemakers at one time or another. Please feel free to share what you do to manage noisemakers.

Ty Kiisel writes about project management issues and best practices for @task Project Management Software.

For more project management tips, see:
Project management: Scrapping a doomed project
Four things project managers can learn from base coaches
Prioritizing IT projects

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