This is the most critical aspect of your job. Do this well and you are more than half-way to success. A stakeholder is a person, a group or an organisation that has an interest (stake) in your program. Stakeholders both affect the program and are affected by it. Examples of stakeholders are customers, funders, internal management, teams, governance structure, partners, vendors etc.

You may already have a good idea of all your stakeholders and their expectations from the program. But it is always a good idea to sit back and make a list of all your stakeholders. It is important here to differentiate between stakeholders of the projects and sub-programs under your program and the stakeholders of your program. Of course, a stakeholder of a project within the ambit of your program is definitely a stakeholder of yours. But she is only an indirect stakeholder. This stakeholder will be dealt with, and her expectations managed by, the project manager under you. You should focus on your own stakeholders and not overly on the project stakeholders (unless there is an escalation to you) or you may spread yourselves too thin.

Program stakeholders generally tend to be at a more senior level in the customer (or other) organisation and tend to be business leaders there. Also, program stakeholders tend be interested in long-term engagements. They also tend to be more geographically distributed.

As I hinted before, a project stakeholder may escalate issues to you if she feels that her expectations are not being met by the project manager.

Once you make a list of all your stakeholders, it is the time to do a thorough analysis of each stakeholder. With respect to each stakeholder you need to work out the following: What is her expectations from you and the program? How powerful is she in the organisation and within the program environment? What is her level of interest in the program? What is her level of urgency in receiving benefits from the program? The other key question you need to ask is: What is the stakeholder’s attitude towards you / the program? Is she hostile? Is she neutral or is she friendly? You cannot afford to have powerful stakeholders being hostile to you. You need to work to change their attitude.

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There are many tools available to you to analyse and look at managing the expectations of various kinds of stakeholders. One such tool is recommended by the PMI and is called the power-interest grid. It looks something like this.

As you can see, a stakeholder that is both powerful and has high interest in the program needs to be managed closely and so on.

How do you know if a stakeholder is powerful or not? There are various kinds of power. Power can come from a stakeholder’s position in the organisation or from their expertise in a subject. Or it can come from her inherent charisma. It can also come from any important information she holds. Normally key decision makers of an organisation, your boss, key partners etc. can be very powerful from the program’s point of view.

There are other tools like the Salience Model that you can use to your advantage.

Once you map out your stakeholders and their expectations and their power and interest, you also need to clearly know what their attitude towards you and your program is. Are they neutral to you, friendly to you or are they downright hostile? If they are hostile you need to work to shift their attitude.

If there are important/powerful stakeholders who are hostile to you/the program, work out a strategy on changing their attitude to at least neutral. One of the ways to change a stakeholder’s attitude is to ensure that you meet their expectations completely.

For example, the CEO (or the VP of Development) of the customer organisation is a powerful stakeholder who expects that the program deliver the right benefits and the required RoI to the organisation. Depending on the interest she shows in dealing with you, you should keep her completely apprised of the progress of benefits realisation from the program.

It is important as a program manager that you establish and agree on basic ground rules for interactions and communications with the various stakeholders. It is also important that you learn to negotiate (and believe me, you will need to negotiate many a time) in a structured manner with your stakeholders. Prepare well before your meeting and rehearse how you will talk to your stakeholder. Work out your “best” outcome and other possible acceptable outcomes. Always prepare to get a win-win result.

Let me give an example of how I changed the attitude of a few stakeholders from hostile/neutral to friendly. I was managing a large program where a system needed to be implemented 50 countries. The main stakeholders here were the Country Directors (CDs) of the various countries. Many of the CDs among the 50 were friendly, some were neutral and some were downright hostile. The main issue among the hostile CDs was that they felt that the implementation was taking a lot of time from their staff. The way I approached it was to first implement the system in the countries with the friendly CDs and create stories of success. I then talked to the neutral/hostile CDs and told them of the success stories; I also got the friendly CDs to talk to the other CDs. The result was the successful implementation of the system in all the countries.

The learning from this was that we can use friendly stakeholders to talk to hostile ones to change their attitude.

You need to be prepared to accept that sometimes you can never change a stakeholder’s attitude. This can happen especially when there are deeper political battles being fought using your program as turf. Many a time you have to give in to the inevitable and make sure that the impact of a hostile stakeholder on the program is kept to a minimum.

Challenge: How do you deal with customers (users) who refuse to accept that a change is out of scope and thus are not ready to pay for the change?

7 Tips for Effective Program Management (A practitioner’s approach) 

Tip 1 – All the world’s a stage – Understand your role

Tip 2 – Don’t fail to see the forest for the trees – Understand the big picture

Tip 4 – Use support structures and technologies to your advantage

Tip 5 – Skating away on the thin ice of the new day – Keep your eye on the program risks

Tip 6 – Dot your I’s and cross your T’s – Understand the program commercials and contracts clearly

Tip 7 – Change management