Shaken, Not Stirred: Assure Stakeholder Participation by Giving Them What They Want

By: Carrie Sharpshair

Engaging stakeholders on all levels is essential for the success of a project, but the fact is: IT, Business, and leadership don’t speak the same language. Providing only project management focused status updates isn’t going to get you the engagement and motivation you’re looking for.

So how can you ensure that your stakeholders get the information that they want and need?

Engage People Where They Are

Looking at a project through an organizational change management lens, we see it’s important to engage stakeholders where they are at with information that is important to them. That doesn’t mean turning on the fire hose of data. Instead, it requires understanding what matters to each person or team and giving them what they want and need to maintain buy-in.

Leadership may just need a high-level view of how the project is faring on the overall timeline. Business users, those who will end up benefiting from the end product, also don’t care about the ins and outs, the day-to-day activities. They want to know: “what’s in it for me? How will this project affect me and my role? How will it make my life easier?”

Because there’s often a divide between IT and Business teams, it’s imperative to communicate to each team in the way most meaningful to them.

IT team members tend to focus on getting things done and may be less in tune with how the solution they’re working on will be used. Find ways to communicate the “why” of the project so that it’s more than just code or milestones to them.

Then help Business teams understand how the IT nitty-gritty will ultimately make their work easier once the project is complete.

I’d like to share a few ways I have found to create cohesion and foster a deeper level of engagement.

Rethinking the Town Hall

On a software implementation for a global medical device company, I and my team sought a way to engage stakeholders in a way that was beneficial to everyone. Town hall meetings were a part of the culture, but we knew from experience that simply focusing on the mechanics of a project tended to make people’s eyes glaze over.

We decided to shift that focus more toward what the Business cared about. We would reiterate the “why” of the project and introduce key players. We invited subject matter experts from the Business team to give presentations on what the software would do and how it would benefit the company.

We knew Murphy’s Law often disrupted live demos in these town halls, so we mixed in screenshots of the software and encouraged Q&A sessions to really bring people in from all levels and get them to feel invested. These “InfoShare sessions,” as we called them, served to focus on a business process and explain how the technical solution supported that process. This series began at a high level and drilled down with more detail over each subsequent session.

The key to these meetings was speaking the language of the audience. Because it was a mixed bag, we strove to include elements to connect with each group.

Find Innovative Ways to Connect

We’re inundated with emails. On a given day, most of us have dozens to hundreds of unopened emails, so it’s no longer an effective channel to communicate on a project. If the people you’re trying to engage with aren’t opening your email, you’re wasting your time.

There are many tools you can use for better communication and engagement. Many companies use instant messaging tools like Slack or Skype. On this project, we used Yammer, a social networking site for enterprises. Just like you’d post on Facebook, our teams would share visual content from workshops, post announcements and celebrations, and interact in a way that stepped outside of traditional business communication habits. As a result, we had better engagement in the project.

Keep in mind: if you use a tool like Yammer, you’ll need someone to manage and moderate content, as well as to be the champion of using the tool for communication.

Break Down the Box

Status quo tells us that if we want to train people or communicate in-depth information to a large group, we need to pile them into a conference room and hope they pay attention.

Deep down, we all know this doesn’t work. So sometimes you’ve got to break out of that traditional box of doing things on a project to really get buy-in.

On this software implementation project, we shook things up by holding a two-day stakeholder summit. Part of the event was based on a trade show concept, and different project groups, such as the testing team, software vendors, and training team, had booths at the event. We divided attendees into groups who traveled together through the marketplace and spent 10-15 minutes at each booth. Each team presented what they did, their initiatives, and why they were important to the project. This gave attendees the chance to see what happens behind the scenes and gave visibility into what’s happening on the project—and most importantly, the ability to ask questions!

The marketplace was the highlight of the event. The testing team, who normally was hidden away, loved the exposure that the marketplace gave them, and they enjoyed chatting with people about what they did. It provided the opportunity to connect faces with names. When you know who you’re working with, it helps teams bond and improves overall delivery.

Because this was such an innovative means for engagement, it had far better results than just another old meeting in the conference room.

Let Creativity Be Your Guide

Everyone sees a project through their own lens. Not everyone needs or wants all the information you have at your disposal, so find out what matters to each person or team the most and deliver it creatively and consistently. 

It may require a mindset shift because most people abhor change, but if you can foster better engagement—and demonstrate that people might enjoy themselves in the process—you’ll start to see more active adoption and involvement.

Find champions to help evangelize. People on a project who are well-respected at every level (from executives down to engineers and programmers) can get buy-in faster (and better) than a mandate from on high.

And be flexible. What worked on the last project might not be the best approach for engagement this time around.  Shake it up a bit, and see what happens!