How do you handle unresponsive key project stakeholders?

It is a common challenge for anyone who has managed projects for a meaningful amount of time. One or more of your key stakeholders who are integral to the successful completion of the project appears unwilling to engage as expected. It could be the project sponsor who ignores your pleas for assistance with a project issue, the functional manager who turns a blind eye to your requests for staffing support or the executive who never seems to have the time to review and sign off on a key deliverable.

How should we handle this situation? As usual, “It depends!” is the correct, yet, most unhelpful answer!

While the response varies depending on the scenario, we need to understand the root cause for the behavior and then assess the range of options available to us within the specific context we are facing.

Four causes for unresponsiveness are:

  1. The stakeholder has insufficient capacity to do what we are asking of them
  2. The stakeholder doesn’t appreciate the importance or urgency of the request
  3. The stakeholder has a hidden or visible agenda which is counter to the request
  4. The stakeholder is being influenced or compelled by something else within the system in which they are working to not meet our needs

If the stakeholder isn’t being responsive to an urgent request they are rarely going to tell you the real reason why. You will have to do some digging to determine the truth. It is fairly easy for someone to say they are too busy or they don’t see why your request is important when their real reason is they actually don’t want your project to succeed. Or, they might take the easy route and pass the buck (“I don’t have the authority”) when it could be one of the other reasons.

Even still, once you’ve identified the root cause, it may not be easy or even possible to implement an effective countermeasure. For example, if you are delayed on the sign off from a key stakeholder, there is no way to proceed without that key stakeholder’s approval and they are unable or unwilling to appoint a proxy, your project will be delayed. You might have done a great job of informing all other stakeholders in a timely manner about the cause and impact of the issue, but if schedule performance is one of your project’s success criteria, it won’t be met.

This is why the scope of risk management is so critical. Identifying critical dependencies, failure points in decision processes and stakeholder unresponsiveness issues from past projects can help us to be better prepared. It can also be helpful to identify common decisions over the life of a project and define the decision processes and exception paths up front before we find ourselves in trouble.

You can’t control other people. But you can proactively plan your reactions to them.






Categories: Project Management | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

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One thought on “How do you handle unresponsive key project stakeholders?

  1. Booper33$$

    Great blog.

    i think much of the challenge we get with enrolling stakeholders (and management for that matter) is that many Agilists don’t present a model which they can understand. These people have risen to where they are by being competent and fixing problems. Agile not only has a history of ignoring them, but with Scrum, for over a decade vilifying them in a subtle way (chickens and pigs).

    I believe Scrum’s influence on Agile has caused damage here by being based on empiricism. Empiricism is a theory that states that knowledge comes only or primarily from sensory experience. The scientific method adds rationalism to add theories as to why we get our experiences. The scientific method includes empiricism to validate its hypotheses. Without this ‘model of understanding’ people tend to discount new ideas – especially people who have been successful and think highly of their own ideas.

    To enroll stakeholders in things, make sure you can explain why what you are trying to enroll them in works for them.

    Here’s another blog of interest.

    What to Say When Someone Just Doesn’t Get it?


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