Why do stakeholders sometimes resist in sharing information? (By Arman Kamran)
The short answer to this old question is:
For the same reason people hide information in any other scenario, which is “The fear of loss or hope of gain”.
This “fear” in a stakeholder can be attributed to a number of reasons, but they would all boil down to the fear of losing the status quo to a future – less favored – situation.
The “hope” part mostly translates into stakeholders sticking to their guns with the hope of keeping the current situation in place, which for some of them in some cases, can even mean “keeping their jobs”.
This is essentially a “Resistance to Change” which we can diagnose and find remedies for.
How do we shift Stakeholders’ “Resistance to Change” into “Constructive Collaboration”?
Based on my past experience of 20 years in the field, we would benefit from first making sure we actually know who our stakeholders are.
This first step needs a review of the initiative and interviews with the key people we have on the project steering committee or any group that is initiating the work, to ensure we have identified all areas of impact, and in those areas we have listed the systems and processes that will be subject to change, and through that we have found the list of people who are involved in the change or are going to be impacted by it.
As per PMI’s PMBOK guide, a stakeholder is considered any person, group or organization that is actively involved in a project, or whose interests may be positively or negatively impacted by execution or completion of the project.
Stakeholders holding the Stakes
In less fancy terms: Whoever is going to be impacted by our project’s outcome (in any manners), is our stakeholder.
The identified list of stakeholders can be grouped into “Internal” and “external” stakeholders. Some of these people are on the project team, some are participating indirectly and some are just recipients of the impact in the end when the product is out.
Needless to say, they come with a wide variety of roles and levels of influence to the project.
Once we have created the list (or table of stakeholders with their roles and impact levels), we classify them into groups of similarities in domain and level of impact and then based on that we start reaching out to each class with proper level of information on the initiative that is underway.
At this point, we are at our best window of opportunity to get the buy-in from the stakeholders by engaging them in checking the scope of the initiative with them and see how their needs map with the high level understanding of the scope we have been given by the project sponsorship.
In the land of unicorns on top of the rainbow, the scope would make a perfect match to what stakeholders need and everyone goes home happy … while in the real world scenario, there will always be gaps with a variety of divergence between what the stakeholders’ need and what your project is going to give them (or take away).
Make it about them!
Use the sessions to get them to provide details of their day-to-day process and how they are currently running the business. This will provide us with insights on what can be done to improve their lives.
This will also build respect for our position in the project as they will see us as someone who cares and listens and wants to help them since we are putting the focus on their problems and needs instead trying to sell them a decision made by someone else.
The scope review sessions with them will also give them the opportunity to share with us their concerns and needs, which in turn would provide us with the information we need to share with the sponsor to see how much of the gap can be filled by a revision (or simply properly filling in the detail) of the scope.
Our sessions with them will fish out the priority and sensitivity of their needs compared to the assumptions from project sponsorship.
Active Listening with the purpose of learning their perspectives and our ability to walk a mile in their shoes before trying to solidify the scope that would impact them, are going to be our valuable assets in this process.
The closer we manage to bridge the gap, the higher support and less resistance we will have from our stakeholders.
In cases where our project will not be able to give a certain group of stakeholders what they need – or worse, its may cause more stress and hardship to their current status without taking away any pain – we can work with the sponsor to de-scope the related section and remove that group from being stakeholders in the project.
Their needs would need to be covered through other initiatives, but for now we are at least avoiding addition headache to their lives (which would raise the risk of resistance from them).
Transparency is key in building respect and a good rapport between us and our stakeholders, whether we can or cannot help them in this project.
We need to keep them in the loop and provide them a logical and understandable reason for de-scoping their part out of the project.
We should remember to make sure they understand that we will either help them with their work or will not touch it to make it any harder or complicated.
There are also other scenarios where our project will have an inevitable negative impact on [some of ] our stakeholders and there is nothing we can do to avoid that. We may be able however to help make their lives a bit easier during the transition.
Some of the most complex examples of such situations - that I had to manage through over the past decade - were Mergers and Acquisitions, where a larger institution (banks in my two past projects) had bought a smaller organization and were planning to merge their businesses and processes into their own.
These projects would ultimately result in the layoff of many people in the smaller organization as the new owner would not need most them in their future state.
This means that a number of our stakeholders would see the project as a termination of their jobs and conclude that the longer the project can be dragged on, the longer they will be needed to stay employed at the smaller organization.
Their morale is will only be dropping further as the project proceeds. They are already looking for jobs outside and are losing their connection and commitment to the old company as time moves on.
There is no golden path in these cases but we can still work with the sponsor to try to find ways to bring in the good resources from the other organization to the new employer, thus giving them a good reason to do their best and shine in their efforts to make the project a success.
For those we cannot find employment for with the new institution, we should try to get them convinced to collaborate with the project with the promise of receiving compensation and/or recognition for their dedication and hard work which may help them land their job faster and for higher pay rates in the market.
Share the Wins
Regardless of their level of participation in the project, once an achievement is done that would impact a group of stakeholders (hopefully in a positive way), we need to make sure they are recognized as part of the team and get their share of spotlight.
This will strengthen their morale and willingness to continue with their collaboration through the rest of the project.
Not Loved By Everyone
We do our best in incorporating our past experience with whatever good insights we gain through learning to deliver the initiative to the highest level of our ability.
We will mix and use our skills in high level management of work and granular attention to details and deal with everyday issues, and celebrate victories and learn from errors and move forward.
One last thing that I want to mention here is that despite doing our best, there will always be stakeholders who simply do not like change (regardless of its positive or negative impact), and will resist sharing information and will cause delays with reviews and approvals and other aspects of the project.
In most cases we do our best to manage their influence on the work, giving them enough time to burn through their reluctance in collaborating with us and finally deliver what we need (as much as project affords to do so without showing impact).
In some cases we end up having no choice but to escalate the matter through the sponsor and the steering committee and create a push to force the work to move forward.
We may even experience cases where the executives finally reach the conclusion that certain individuals need to be removed and replaced by people who would show better prospects of a collaborative relationship with the project.
As much as we prefer to have a great constructive relationship with all stakeholders, every once in a while we may run into such scenarios.
We should remember that our primary directive is not to be loved by everyone. Our first and most important commitment is to deliver the project in the most professionally managed way and that is what we will do even if in some cases we need to show tough love or get someone removed from the team.
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Enterprise Agile Transformation Coach, CIO and Chief Data Scientist
Arman Kamran is an internationally recognized executive leader and enterprise transition coach in Scaled Agile Delivery of Customer-Centric Digital Products with over 20 years of experience in leading teams in private (Fortune 500) and public sectors in delivery of over $1 billion worth of solutions, through cultivating, coaching and training their in-house expertise on Lean/Agile/DevOps practices, leading them through their enterprise transformation, and raising the quality and predictability of their Product Delivery Pipelines.
Arman also serves as the Chief Technology Officer of Prima Recon Machine Intelligence, a global AI solutions software powerhouse with operations in US (Palo Alto, Silicon Valley), Canada (Toronto) and UK (Glasgow).