Stakeholder Register: The Unsung Hero

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PM Articles by Project Times. 

Who is your favorite superhero from the multi-billion-dollar movie franchise Avengers?

Most people would respond with the Hulk, Spiderman, Captain America, or Iron-Man. After all, those characters have been mainstays of Marvel comics for many decades. But they are far from the only ones in the series: Ant-man, Hawkeye, Black Widow, and the Scarlet Witch are a few of the lesser-known members of the super team. Every group has some members who get the glory and front-billing, but it does not mean the others are not essential. Chances are you may have worked on a project in which some of your colleagues’ overshadowed others.

Among project management artifacts, the stakeholder is such an unsung hero. The Who? The What? Exactly.

Chances are your extended project team, or even your sponsor doesn’t know about this document, or why it’s important. But you, as the project manager, should be keen on its powers. Think of how to alter egos that are underestimated in the superhero world, or how smaller members are overlooked until they rise to the occasion and save the day.

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Remember all those Shakespeare plays you read in high school? Before the first act, the “dramatis personae” were listed. The descriptions often gave you an idea of their relationship and any conflict which may ensue. Navigating the play without such information would be difficult. Hamlet’s name may title the play, but you’d want to also know about Claudius and his schemes.

The charter, the schedule, and the project management plan get all the glory, but the stakeholder register is key to understanding the others. After all, a project takes people not just to perform the work but also to benefit from the product. Without understanding the stakeholders’ needs, a project will likely miss the mark. This translates not just to a lost opportunity for the organization but also wasted time, money, and goodwill.

The stakeholder management plan also helps keep track of triple constraint impact. We often focus on the project’s priorities, but constraints also exist at the stakeholder and requirement levels. Understanding what makes each stakeholder tick is integral to successfully managing those needs. For younger project managers raised on role-playing games (computer or tabletop), the stakeholder management plan can best be described as a matrix of all the traits and abilities of each participant.

Project managers often fall into the trap of believing stakeholder management is logical and thus can be done on the fly. Others may think their interpersonal skills enable stakeholder management to flow naturally. Seasoned project managers know better, aware of the manners in which stakeholder attitudes may change throughout the project. One’s best friend may become one’s bitter enemy, and a strong proponent may suddenly turn into a source of undesired criticism. Being aware of the stakeholder’s desires and personalities can help the PM prepare for, and avoid such landmines.

Some projects run into difficulties due to the stakeholder management plan not being written down, but this often stems not from laziness but rather a mistaken belief that the PM “knows all about the stakeholders.” Project managers, no matter their tenure in the organization, should not fall into this trap. Crafting the stakeholder management plan:

  • Helps other team members, whose tenure and experience may be limited and not have relationships with the stakeholders. Think about when you first started working for your company, or when you first took on your current role. Your network was likely limited both in terms of knowledge depth and breadth. A well-curated list of stakeholders can save your team from spinning around in circles to find out who is affected by the project and to what degree.
  • Can assist when a stakeholder leaves the organization and a new one comes into the vacated role. It would be ideal to have a project where the stakeholders do not change…but that seldom happens. People retire, take new jobs, are moved to new roles; while some may adequately train their replacements and help them understand their role in the project, PMs should not assume this would always happen. The stakeholder register can help identify gaps and prepare for such personnel transitions.
  • Can help clear misunderstandings. Conflict is unavoidable in projects, but the team should be well-versed on how to solve it. Confusion, on the other hand, can often fester if not clarified. The stakeholder register, when easily accessible by the team, can clarify roles, responsibilities, and areas of interest. Note the stakeholder interest and influence matrix will expand on the topic, so don’t rely on the register by itself.
  • Can facilitate conversations on Roles & Responsibilities. As the project team goes through the Tuckman team Development stages, questions will arise on roles and responsibilities. The stakeholder register can help guide such conversations, proactively prompting the team to analyze who is best suited to tackle individual tasks and oversee specific areas. Vetting these duties against the involved stakeholder areas ensures no affected department is forgotten.
  • Can help craft the change management plan. I’m a firm believer that change management and project management are the two wings of a bird; you need both to fly. A successful change management plan covers the what, how, why, when, where, and how of the current state: future state transition. You can get a head start by ensuring your stakeholder register is complete and thorough.

As with other project management artifacts, it’s key to remember the stakeholder management plan should be revised as needs arise. However, it should always be connected to the underlying stakeholder list. Always ask, after every conversation“, is there someone else you’d recommend I talk to?” This can help not just unlock doors, but also discover doors you didn’t know existed!


Tony Oliver

Tony S. Oliver has been a project manager for more than two decades. He specializes in change management, risk management, and continuous improvement opportunities. When not running projects, Tony enjoys spending time with his wife and daughter in Folsom, CA, teaching courses for UC Davis Continuing and Professional Education, and writing about baseball.