The word ‘stakeholder’ first popped up in a memo report by the Stanford Research Institute in 1963, where it was defined as “groups without whose support the organization would cease to exist.”
The word has evolved to mean slightly different things over the years, but if there’s one thing we can all agree on, it’s that stakeholders are a pretty big deal.
As you’ve probably guessed, stakeholders own a stake in something — whether that’s a business or a project. They can be internal or external, senior, middle, or junior, and they can hail from quite literally any area of the business — from management and marketing, to design and development. They’re an important group of people, and you’ll need them on your side throughout your project lifecycle.
Let’s take a closer look at the world of internal stakeholders, as well as how to manage (and impress) them.
Who are internal stakeholders?
Internal stakeholders are those who affect or can be affected by a project or organization and its activities.
Internal stakeholders include (but are not limited to) the following roles:
- Purchasers / purchasing teams
- Marketing experts
- Sales managers and sales teams
- Creatives and creative directors
- Manufacturing and assembly experts
External stakeholders typically include the following groups of people:
- Customers and users
- Governments and other officials
How to identify internal stakeholders (and why you should)
Without the approval of your internal stakeholders, the project won’t happen. You need them for sign-off, but you also need their support throughout the project — as well as afterward.
If they lose confidence during the project, they might pull out and knock the confidence of other individuals within the organization. You also need their support post-project because the success of your project is often judged by the satisfaction of your stakeholders.
For these reasons, it’s important you identify all stakeholders, so you can effectively manage them throughout the project’s lifecycle. Here’s how to identify internal stakeholders.
- Look at all the people who will be involved in the project, both directly and indirectly. Start with your immediate team, then look at your department, and then look at the levels above and below you.
- Study your company’s organizational chart to help you identify relevant people in different pockets of the business.
- Talk to team members and managers to see if they can help you identify other relevant individuals. They can also help you locate any blind spots you may have missed.
How to manage internal stakeholders
1. Understand stakeholder needs
To talk to a group of people effectively, you need to know who they are and what it is they want. The best way to do this is to talk to them.
Surveys are a good option here: Think about the kinds of answers you need from the individual groups, and ask them. Tailor each set of questions so your answers are as relevant and useful as possible. For example, if part of your project involves IT, ask the IT team to complete a survey that’s full of questions related to this specific area of your project.
2. Focus your energy on the right people
Not all stakeholders were created equally. As mentioned above, they can include juniors and seniors, budget-holders, team leaders, and project managers. Some stakeholders are high up in the company but lack relevant decision-making ability and are often harder to pin down. Others are low-status but have budget-holding power. Don’t waste your time trying to influence and manage everyone — focus your energies on those who matter most.
The best way to do this is to think about your stakeholder needs. Use a spreadsheet or project management tool to note down all stakeholders, as well as their primary needs, interests, and level of influence. Once you’ve worked this out, you can begin separating your stakeholders into different groups.
Key stakeholders should be your main focus and should be involved in decision-making — while other low-level stakeholders can simply be involved in communications and updates. If you’re using project management software, consider adding them to project groups so they can check-in and track progress when needed.
Those with high interest but low influence should be involved as regularly as possible, whereas those with high influence and low interest (usually senior managers) are best involved via short briefings or presentations.
3. Make sure everyone is aligned
It’s vital everyone’s on board: Any kind of dissonance can lead to unmet expectations, and ultimately, project failure. Strong organization communication is a must here, whether you’re talking to the whole business or just a team.
Essentially, it’s your job to make sure everyone knows what’s going on at all times. There are several ways to do this. Holding meetings, one-on-ones, hosting presentations or briefings, sending out updates — the better you know your stakeholders and their priorities, the better you’ll be at choosing the right channels.
It’s also important to have an awareness of each group’s priorities, and how these are often at odds with one another. For example, those in charge of budgets want to save money, whereas the creative team will want to spend as much as possible. Your project should speak to all of these objectives (while sticking to its own constraints).
4. Be an expert translator
Different specialists have different ways of speaking. Understanding this and adapting your language accordingly will be a big help while you get everyone aligned. If you’re creating a document that needs to be read and understood by everyone, scan it for technical language, jargon, acronyms, and any other kind of confusing words that others won’t understand.
Modify the way you speak to stakeholders and you’ll not only make it easier for them to understand what’s going on — you’ll also build rapport, demonstrate to stakeholders that goals are being met, and help everyone work toward a singular goal with confidence.
As a project manager, learning how to identify and manage your stakeholders is a key skill to have. If their expectations aren’t met, the project could be considered a failure — so it’s important to keep them happy and confident from start to finish, and beyond.
It’s also important to remain flexible: Stakeholders often change their needs as the project progresses, so learning to effectively guide them — as well as compromise where necessary — is a vital skill to have. The better you’re able to manage all these different elements while staying flexible, the greater your chance of success.