Part 1 of this article introduced a process for identifying stakeholders, analyzing their impact on the project and setting a strategy for each stakeholder group. Here I will discuss how to plan communication actions to influence stakeholders.
Plan Communication Actions
Once you have set a strategy for each stakeholder group, you need to identify communication actions to get you there. Get these actions into your calendar as soon as possible. For each action, answer the following questions:
- Who is the communication for?
- What is the message?
- How will the message be delivered (in person, email, presentation, multimedia sound and light show)?
- When will you complete the action?
- By whom should the message be communicated?
Replicate communication actions. Planning the same communications for stakeholders with similar interests/impact will save you time and effort. For example, if you decide to write a biweekly tech update, send it to all those stakeholders with a technical interest in the project. If you plan to meet one-on-one with each of your supporters, prepare a common list of questions in advance to probe their needs.
Delegate responsibility. The person delivering the message should be the person with the most credibility with the target audience. For example, have a marketing core team member present to stakeholders from marketing, but not from R&D.
Apply Influence Principles
Often, stakeholders are senior managers in the organization. You must influence their opinions and actions without relying on formal authority. Since you can’t force, threaten or cajole these people into supporting the project, you must find more subtle ways of influencing opinion and behavior.
Project managers can draw on a well-researched body of knowledge on the psychology of influence. Social Psychologist Robert Cialdini has identified six widely used influence principles.
If I scratch your back, you’ll scratch mine. Help your stakeholders before you need their help! Reciprocity will make them want to help in return. Caution! Reciprocity applies only for deeds already done. The promise to help someone in the future is not likely to motivate people to help you today.
A project manager I know has the habit of sending articles of interest to his stakeholders. He knows the articles are relevant and valuable to each stakeholder because he has spent time learning about the stakeholder’s interests. He also knows that it is much easier to ask the stakeholder for support if he has helped them recently.
Going once, going twice, sold! People are attracted to things that are rare, exclusive or temporary. To influence stakeholders, think about what is truly unique or uncommon about your project and emphasize these qualities in your communications.
Fear of Loss. Decision science researchers Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky demonstrated that people are more motivated to avoid a loss than to make an equivalent gain. Describe honestly what stands to be lost if the stakeholder does not take action. For example, “Without your approval for the software license, we will miss our milestone and may lose a key customer.”
Your best arguments will be useless in influencing stakeholders until you have demonstrated your credibility. People are more likely to act on information from a credible authority, someone who possesses the right combination of knowledge and trustworthiness. Make sure the message always comes from the most credible source on your team, e.g. have the techies talk to tech stakeholders.
Trustworthiness is built over long time by upfront and honest behavior. James Kouzes and Barry Posner state that while credibility is built up over years, it can be lost in an instant through dishonest or disrespectful behavior.
Except for all my flaws, I’m perfect. According to Cialdini, you can increase your trustworthiness by mentioning a weakness just before making your strongest argument. You are more believable if you admit that your project is not perfect up front.
Commitment / Consistency
Feeling good. People are more willing to take actions that they perceive to be consistent with what they have already said or done. If I make a commitment and follow through, I feel good about myself. I tell myself I am reliable, trustworthy, faithful and honest. If I fail to keep a commitment, I must find a rationale to justify my failure.
Get a public commitment. We can influence future behavior by getting a stakeholder to make a public commitment. The best way to do so is simply to ask for a commitment and then wait for the stakeholder to give it. Ask your stakeholders (especially supporters) for their commitment.
“Will you…” These two words have the power to elicit a commitment! Tack them on to the front of a question and then wait for the answer.
“Will you help me solve the technical problem?”
“Will you help get the budget approved?”
A word of caution: commitment works both ways! Be careful what you commit to and make sure you honor your commitments.
Consensus & Social Proof
If you can’t fight ‘em, show ‘em. People are influenced by the behavior of a crowd. Use this fact to reduce the impact of opposers. Rather than fighting blockers directly, show them how much support you already have! The fact that everyone seems to be supporting you already will make it less likely that a blocker will actively oppose you.
Brief supporters in advance. If you expect resistance from a stakeholder at an upcoming meeting, prepare by briefing your supporters in advance. Ask them for their commitment to kick off the meeting with positive statements about the project. If enough people do this, it may take the wind out of the opposer’s sails. The stakeholder may not want to risk an argument or embarrassment in front of his peers.
Social proof also increases the impact of low power supporters. By drawing together isolated supporters, you can increase the chance that their voice will be heard. As an added benefit, you may also gain useful suggestions on how to improve your product or service.
People prefer to say yes to people they like. Liking comes from positive connections, shared interests, experiences and common goals. What can you do to build more positive connections with your stakeholders?
Pay attention to others. Look for areas you have in common, which will provide a basis for conversation to help build a productive working relationship.
Staying on Course
According to the Project Management Institute®, a project manager spends up to 90% of her time communicating. Much of this communication is with stakeholders. Applying influence principles to your communication actions will help keep your stakeholder relationships on course.
Cialdini, Robert. Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Collins Business Essentials, 2006.
Photo credit: Damian Gadal