Boosting stakeholder communications to drive project success

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Written by Russell Kenrick on 20 June 2016

Projects are continuing to fail – only 64 per cent of projects met their goals in 2015 and that figure had not changed since 2012.

The cost of failure is high – organisations lose $109 million (£74 million) for every $1 billion (£680 million) invested in projects and programmes – and ineffective stakeholder communications and the resulting lack of engagement are very much at the heart of the issue.

There are many reasons for project failure, ranging from poor planning or inadequate process to failure to set expectations and manage them.

Other factors include lack of communication at any level, culture or ethical misalignment, competing priorities and disregard of project warning signs, and the majority of them share a common theme – communications breakdown.

Management usually pays lip service to the need for good communications with all the key stakeholders, but the reality is that in most cases not enough time, planning and budget is allocated to getting communications right.

Interestingly, the recent announcement of Microsoft’s proposed $26 billion acquisition of LinkedIn has thrown the spotlight on the need for better communications.

One of the possible outcomes from the deal, according to LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner, would be the opportunity to expand the LinkedIn platform beyond recruiting and L&D to create value for any part of an organisation involved with managing, motivating or leading employees.

Weiner sees communications as an area ripe for improvement: “This human capital area is a massive business opportunity and an entirely new one for Microsoft.”

He hopes to ‘truly change the way the world works’ by partnering with Microsoft to innovate on solutions within the enterprise that are ripest for disruption, such as ‘company news dissemination, collaboration, productivity tools, distribution of business intelligence and employee voice’.

Getting stakeholder comms to work

There are four steps to effective stakeholder communications – strategy, plan, action and measure (creating the acronym Spam!).

  • Strategy – this part of the process is about spending time identifying all the stakeholders that need to be communicated with. As well as clients, stakeholders might include project teams, peers within the business and even the general public. Only then can you define high-level, key messages about the planned project. At this stage it is vital not to homogenise stakeholder groups – one customer may have very different interests and motivations than another.
  • Plan – this is the nuts and bolt stage of project management, working out budget and who will do what and when. At this point it is vital to include time and budget for communications as you would with any other part of the project.
  • Action – as the project gets underway, keep stakeholders up to speed with appropriate communications that build-in a feedback loop where necessary, especially when you may need to communicate issues with the project.
  • Measure – before the project starts, consider how you will measure the effectiveness of communications with different stakeholders. The means of measurement has to be appropriate. A survey of awareness might be appropriate for the public, while senior managers may have to sign to say they have read and understood emails or documents about the project. Be prepared to respond to measurements of effectiveness by changing communications as needed.

L&D professionals have a key role to play in supporting stakeholder communications. There may be a place for communication skills development within project teams, depending on the size of the projects.

Additionally, boosting the skills of dedicated marketing and communications departments so that they are able to support internal project teams in communicating with their wide variety of stakeholders could be an effective approach for many organisations.

Only when stakeholder communications becomes a fundamental work stream of any project, on an equal footing with any other work stream, will project success rates rise.

About the author

Russell Kenrick is the Managing Director at ILX

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