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Supporting project stakeholders through change

A key success factor for the benefits realization of a project is that the impacted stakeholders accept the change that the project will bring. Patrick Mayfield has proposed a set of seven stakeholder engagement principles that can help the project's stakeholder management approach so that change is embraced, and the benefits of the project start being realized.

One could say that ultimately, project management (and all management really) is change management. We want to create a unique product, service or result, and at the same time make sure that we keep all our stakeholders as happy as possible. Also, we protect ourselves from the unhappy ones! For the benefits of each project to be realized, we need to make sure that the project stakeholders understand and embrace the change resulting from the project.

Patrick Mayfield, in his book Practical People Engagement: Leading Change Through the Power of Relationships puts forward a number of issues that can help with leading change in any project. The advice that he gives is grouped in seven key rules:

1. Seek first to understand & then be understood

This is one of Stephen Covey’s 7 habits of highly effective people. According to Mayfield, listening is always the start position in effective influencing. When starting a project, it is extremely important to document the stakeholders, and then communicate appropriately with them in order to understand their position. It is not mandatory to share their position, but for sure we need to show empathy before starting to think how we will deal with them.

2. Effective change is always led

Change is rarely straightforward and easy. Therefore, us human beings, need someone to guide us through the difficult times and to show the appropriate leadership. Often, a "guiding coalition" should be defined that will be responsible to lead the change initiative.

3. Habits are the inhibitors and the goal

This principle may sound strange, but the meaning is that we do not only need to get rid of our old habits, we need to replace them with new ones. According to Bridges transition model, people must start a change by recognizing the end of the previous status. Then, they must safely pass through a neutral zone, trying to find direction. Finally, they will have new beginnings, learning their new habits (their goal).

4. Recognise and minimise the pain of change

A change is always difficult. It is not helpful to try to ignore the pain of the change. On the contrary, the past positives must be rightfully recognized, so that closure can start happening. And even if the need for change is clear, the actual process of the change is rarely effortless and straightforward.

5. High performance comes through people and action

Change and more importantly transition cannot happen unless the appropriate people are engaged. We need to motivate people so that they can give their best. Moreover, even if planning is very important, this must not lead to analysis-paralysis. On the contrary, the appropriate action must be taken as soon as the best way forward is agreed.

6. Integrity is powerfully persuasive

The leaders of any change initiative must show integrity and true commitment to the change. This is the best way to build trust within the change community. It is always easier to attain engagement from a stakeholder when they feel that the change leadership show integrity.

7. Feelings trump reason, and meaning trumps authority

Since we are human beings, our rationality is bounded. Experience consistently shows that we cannot make decisions based only on logical reasoning, and so we must recognize the need for emotional connection too. And of course, it is always more effective when people understand the reason and the meaning of the change than just commanding to change.

Over the last years, the importance of stakeholder management is widely recognized. It is one of the ten Knowledge Areas of the 6th edition of the PMBOK Guide. Actually, stakeholder management was the last knowledge area that was added in the PMBOK Guide. Additionally, and focusing more specifically in organizational change management, stakeholder management is a key component of the Change Management Foundation and Practitioner certifications from APMG.

So, whenever you need to manage effectively the change and more importantly the transition to the new situation that a project will bring, make sure that you take into consideration the seven above principles!