Communicating with stakeholders… or keeping everyone who needs to know in the loop

Communicating with stakeholders

Everyone knows (or should know) that when you’re trying to get work done, you need to communicate regularly with all the members of the project team.

But there’s another group of people that organisations regularly forget about including in updates – and they’re the stakeholders.

“Stakeholder” always feels like a weird, public-sectory kind of word, but it describes everyone who needs to know about something you’re doing. They might not be directly involved in the project – but its outcome might affect them, even in a small way.

Here’s an example

Bob is a learning and development professional. He’s leading a wide-ranging project to introduce a new learning platform that will allow his colleagues to access online learning wherever and whenever they want. It’s hoped this move will improve take-up of learning resources – and will lead to more highly skilled and better-informed teams throughout the organisation.

Which is great. But Bob’s stressed. His budget for the project has been cut twice and he’s had to scale back on some of his original ideas. He’s also experienced difficulties integrating the platform so that it will work quickly enough in all the markets his company operates in.

Of course, when he comes to write the case study of this piece of work, all these headaches will be forgotten. But for now, they’re his top priority. He spends a lot of time on conference calls to his colleagues in Asia who are building the platform – and a lot of time writing progress reports for his immediate managers, who are also stressed that the project may not hit deadlines, targets and budgets.

The project has become all-consuming. And it seems completely irrelevant to Bob what his colleagues in another department will think about it. So he doesn’t talk to anyone about it – particularly since things haven’t been going so well.

Fast forward six months and the platform is up and running. Admittedly, it doesn’t have all of the functionality that Bob wanted it to and the interface could be slicker, but it’s fast and it’s relatively easy to use.

But now Bob’s problem is that people aren’t using it. They quite like the old platform they still have access to – and getting them to migrate across is like herding cats. People cancel meetings about it at the last minute. Or they smile and say, “Sounds great, Bob!” but carry on using the old system.

This situation comes about often in corporate environments because busy, stressed people like Bob and his team forget to involve stakeholders in the journey. “What’s the point of that?” they think, “If it works, it’ll be the best thing since sliced bread and everyone will just have to use it. If it doesn’t work, what’s the point of broadcasting the humiliation?”

But this is short-term thinking that leads to unengaged, and possibly resistant stakeholders.

So who are your stakeholders?

For Bob, his stakeholders were anyone in the organisation who was likely to use training – or have their teams benefit from using training. So pretty much everyone.

And this doesn’t just apply to one-off projects. If you’re running a club or a building and you’re thinking about a new initiative that will affect others – like installing a shower facility or changing the day you meet – your stakeholders will be everyone who is affected by that change.

Why bother to communicate to such (potentially) large groups?

Keeping everyone updated on the progress of your project (or indeed, in the loop that it’s even happening) is absolutely necessary if you want them:

a)   To support the change you’re bringing in, and

b)   To adopt it

Generally, people do not like having change foisted upon them, even if the change has the potential to make their lives better. That’s because they don’t know it will make their lives better yet, because you haven’t told them.

So when you’re planning something new, it pays to make time to plan how you’re going to communicate that change to everyone involved.

So what do you do?

Step one: Identify who your stakeholders are – all of them

Who’s going to be affected by the thing you’re planning? If it’s a noisy party at your house, then your neighbours are definitely stakeholders.

If you’re going to move the office kitchen, the stakeholders are everyone who currently uses the kitchen, everyone who may use a nice new shiny kitchen – and everyone leading teams of people who could use the new kitchen.

This isn’t about identifying who’s got a “right to know” – or even who’s capable of understanding your complex work. It’s about identifying anyone whose life you’re about to change – even for a short time.

Step two: Decide how to communicate

When you’re deciding which channels to use to communicate, ask your stakeholders what works for them.

Maybe it’s email. Maybe it’s Slack. Maybe it’s giving them a link to a website where they can go for updates if they want. Or maybe it’s having your internal comms team put your updates in their regular newsletter.

The thing here is, don’t just assume that a channel of communication that works for you will necessarily work for everyone else.

Step three: Communicate from your stakeholders’ points of view

You can’t expect stakeholders to care much about different platform options or kitchen wiring schematics.

What they will care very much about, however, is how the change is going to affect them – the good points and the bad points.

They’ll want to know how long their current kitchen is going to be closed. They’ll want to know why the new kitchen is going to be a lot nicer (more fridge space, a nice coffee machine and a bigger dishwasher). And they’ll want reassurance that they’ll still be able to bring their packed lunches in after the change.

In marketing terms, this is called benefits-driven communication. So make sure you frame your communications in terms of what’s in it for the stakeholder. If you’re giving your neighbours advanced warning of a noisy party, what’s in it for them is the opportunity to get ear plugs or to go and stay somewhere else… which will also make them less likely to call the police.)

Step four: Keep it brief, but be open for queries

Your stakeholders probably don’t want to know every tiny detail about your project or the plans you have. So keep initial information brief – but give stakeholders a contact where they can find out more if they want or need to.

This may sound a pain – I mean, why would you want to give people your mobile number or email address? Wouldn’t that just invite people to call you to ask about the colour of the tiles you’re going to use?

Maybe, yes – and I’d argue that that’s not such a bad thing. Because if all that’s stopping a person getting on board with your project is being able to visualise the shiny white tiles, then fill in the gaps for them.

But say something else happens, like your plans to shut down the kitchen coincide with the planned day of a charity bake sale. There could be a lot of angry and frustrated people if you simply tell people they won’t be able to use the kitchen for two weeks, starting on Friday. But if your colleagues can contact you to explain about the bake sale, you have an opportunity to sort out an alternative location – or to postpone the work for a day. (And for super stakeholder communication, you could swing by the bake sale and buy a cupcake or two.)

If you’re thinking, “But I just don’t have time to do all that,” consider this: Not communicating with Team Bake Sale – and allowing them to communicate with you – would almost certainly result in a flurry of emails, which you’d have to spend time answering. It could also spark resistance – so when you want to move to kitchen number two, the budget holders might say, “I’m not sure Bob, kitchen one was very unpopular…”


Step five: Generate a regular stream of updates

The good news, the bad news – even no news. Keep it all flowing so that everyone affected knows what’s happening.

Hi guys – Just to let you know the kitchen’s going to take a week longer than we thought. I know it’s a pain, but we want to get it right. Thanks for understanding. If you want to hear all the ins and outs, call me.

Hi there – we’re all on schedule to have the new kitchen ready on Monday morning. Prepare to get nice coffee!

Hi team – kitchen update. Sadly, budgets aren’t going to run to a Nespresso machine. But there’ll be a kettle and free Nescaff – so it’s not all bad. You have my number if you want to chat.

All of these communications will reassure and keep people informed.

And if you think no news is good news, you’ve never faced the frustration of standing on a train platform looking at a “delayed” sign, thinking, “How long is this delay? Should I go and get a coffee? Should I get a cab home?”

Faced with voids of information, people get agitated. Some people even make stuff up to fill the gap. So avoid the rumour mill and keep on top of the communications – however banal they may seem.

And don’t be afraid to make a campaign of it

If you’re doing something as groundbreaking as Bob, then bringing people along with you on the journey and getting everyone excited and bought into the change is well worth while.

Because there’s no point doing a project simply to deliver it. You want it to have results and be successful – and that usually means getting people involved and using whatever you’ve done.

So send them flyers, create a launch event, make an occasion of it.

If you’d like to talk about anything in this post – give us a call or drop us a line.