Guide to Managing Project Stakeholders
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A Project Manager’s Guide to Effective Stakeholder Management

Managing projects can be tricky. There are timelines, budgets, and lots of moving pieces. Now add in the human factor, and things just got more difficult.

People bring the heart and soul to projects—providing different perspectives, new ideas, and passion. They’re also the reason projects get complicated. You’re bringing together lots of personalities with varying motivations and experience.

That’s why every project manager should invest in improving their stakeholder management skills. As you get better at identifying, collaborating, and managing your stakeholder relationships, things will start to run much more smoothly on your projects.

So let’s break down the basics of stakeholder management. In this guide, you’ll learn how to analyze, map, and engage project stakeholders—plus get free templates to help you save time.

What is stakeholder management?

Simply put, stakeholder management is a project management process that involves establishing and managing relationships—and expectations—with the people who have an interest in the project.

Stakeholder management involves:

  • Identifying who your stakeholders are
  • Understanding your stakeholders’ needs
  • Explaining your expectations to stakeholders
  • Guiding stakeholders through a series of decision-making points towards consensus to achieve a project’s goals

Don’t forget each person arrives with their own past experiences, job security (or insecurities), level of expertise, bias, and so on. Once you’ve mastered working with one group,  you’ll start all over again with a new group and a new set of rules.

It’s hard, but worth it and you will get better at it over time.

I’ve seen projects with the most beautiful design and best executed code fail because stakeholders were unhappy with the experience and process.

I’ve also seen project after project where scope cuts mean fancy designs don’t get implemented, and the clients are over the moon.

That’s why stakeholder management is the most critical aspect of every project.

Benefits of stakeholder management

If relationships are more important to project success than the actual final product, then it’s pretty easy to see the main high-level benefit of good stakeholder management.

When you look even closer, you’ll find many other benefits can be gained.

Focus and clarity

Starting a project can be overwhelming for stakeholders. This might be a new experience for them, or maybe they’ve taken on a new role at the company. It most certainly adds extra responsibilities on top of their already busy schedule.

Walking their team through a stakeholder engagement plan can help clarify their role and project expectations. It also gives stakeholders the space to ask questions and get comfortable with the process. This should encourage them to become more engaged and (hopefully) effective.

Reduce risk

When you include the right people from the start, you uncover red flags early on. That means less project risk and derailment—and more happy project managers! You’ll also find key stakeholders who usually stay hidden, so you can avoid the dreaded swoop and poop.

Inclusion and diversity

Taking extra time to make sure the right voices are part of the project enables you to be more inclusive and hear a diversity of perspectives. This opens the project to new ideas and different challenges and ensures a more successful outcome that has everyone’s buy-in.

Financial returns

A good stakeholder engagement plan produces happy clients. And happy clients mean repeat business and referrals. A thorough discovery process with all your stakeholders can also uncover early potential phase 2 work.

Repeatable systems

Fine-tuning any process allows you to create consistency within your own organization and easily onboard new team members.

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What is a project stakeholder?

Project stakeholders are individuals or groups who have an interest in a project and its outcome. The Project Management Institute defines stakeholders as “individuals and organizations who are actively involved in the project, or whose interests may be positively or negatively affected as a result of project execution or successful project completion.”

Stakeholders can work internally in the organization or be an external end user and can have a positive or negative impact on the project. Some stakeholders may also be more impacted by the outcome than others.

Examples of common stakeholders

Here are a few examples of people who might have a stake in the outcome of your project.

Internal project stakeholders External project stakeholders
  • Marketing team members
  • Website or app managers
  • Designers
  • Content creators
  • Department leads
  • Executives
  • Board of directors
  • Customers
  • Funders
  • Suppliers
  • Vendors
  • Public groups
  • Government agencies

As your stakeholder group grows, so does your job managing it. That’s where the idea of key stakeholders comes in.

Who are key stakeholders?

Key stakeholders are project stakeholders with the most influence over a project. They might have a unique perspective, special skills, time and energy, lots of authority, or the ability to shut down (or continue to fund) your project.

Key stakeholders make or break the success of your project. That’s why it’s important to identify them within your stakeholder group, understand their expectations and needs, and guide them through the project.

In this key stakeholder group, you’ll see a couple of distinguishing factors—internal vs external and primary vs secondary. Let’s take a closer look at each one.

Internal vs external stakeholders

Internal and external stakeholders vary based on their perspectives.

Internal stakeholders

Internal stakeholders work within the organization and bring an under-the-hood perspective to the project. While they may carry job- and goal-related pressures from the company, their access to all the internal conversations can help provide a fuller view.

Just be aware they might get bogged down in too many details or cling to old habits or internal procedures.

External stakeholders

External stakeholders are very “me” focused, thinking about how they specifically interact with the product or website. While they don’t come with baggage or pressure from the organization, they still have their own bias and don’t necessarily think about all user needs.

Primary vs secondary stakeholders

Within your internal key stakeholder group, you’ll have both primary vs secondary stakeholders.

Primary stakeholders

Primary stakeholders will have a critical role in the project. They have a higher level of authority and should be available to regularly provide input.

Ideally, primary stakeholders are able to help a project move forward based on its goal and strategy. These are the folks who are going to get their hands dirty, doing a ton of work and making critical decisions.

Secondary stakeholders

The secondary stakeholder group is likely larger and can include key and non-key stakeholders. They have an important perspective but will only provide it on a limited basis— either due to their availability, authority level, or area of expertise.

More often, you’ll inform secondary stakeholders rather than include them in decision-making—unless you specifically request their involvement. It’s critical to keep this group informed and comfortable with the project’s progress and outcomes.

Stakeholder vs. shareholder: What’s the difference?

You might have heard people using the words “stakeholder” and “shareholder” interchangeably, but they’re actually very different.

Remember, project stakeholders are groups or individuals who have an interest in your project and are impacted by the results.

Shareholders, on the other hand, are groups or individuals who own a share or stock in a public or private company. They’ve invested their money into the company, which means decisions—maybe even your project’s decisions—can impact their bottom line.

Shareholders also have voting rights. That means they have a say in leadership and can influence management’s direction and perspective.

The difference between stakeholders and shareholders really lies in their motivations, influence, and relationship to the company. Depending on your project, this may or may not be a factor in your work.

One interesting shift to note is the influence shareholders have had in the past vs now. The rise of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) has driven companies to take both stakeholder and shareholder voices into account.

How to create a stakeholder engagement plan

A stakeholder engagement plan is a customized per-project plan you create to manage your key stakeholders. This process typically includes identifying your stakeholders and defining their needs, involvement, and engagement points.

Here are 5 steps you can follow to develop a stakeholder engagement plan for your projects:

  • Step 1: Define your why
  • Step 2: Identify project stakeholders
  • Step 3: Conduct stakeholder interviews
  • Step 4: Map stakeholders by role and priority
  • Step 5: Formalize your stakeholder engagement plan

Step 1: Define your why

When you start to create any plan, it’s important to pause and define your why. While we likely can all agree on the general reason for why we’re doing it and even the benefits, it’s important to uncover your own motivation. This will help you find meaning and value in the plan rather than just checking the boxes because someone said it was a good idea.

Here are a few things to think about as you consider your why:

  • Where you work
  • Your industry and/or client types
  • What you personally need this plan to accomplish
  • What success looks like

Make sure that meaning translates to personalization of the plan and a clear picture of what success will look like for you and your clients in the end.

The answers might be tied to your current role, what’s best for the company, or where you’re taking your career long-term. They should also evolve over time, so be sure to revisit and adjust your plan as your why changes.

Step 2: Identify project stakeholders

Now that you’re clear about why you’re creating this plan, you need to find your stakeholders.

So where should you begin? Start by asking the folks who’ve already been part of the sales or discovery process—typically the project owner. This is best handled as a conversation vs an email, so schedule a call to talk through the following steps:

  1. Define what a stakeholder is. That word means many things to different people, and clients struggle with what it should mean for their project. Outline different types of stakeholders and how they’ll be included in the project.
  2. Explain what a healthy team looks like. Educate stakeholders so they understand who might be a good fit and who will hurt the project.
  3. Outline what skills you need to include in the team to be successful. I don’t know how many projects I’ve been on where they think we can exclude the folks making content and design assets.
  4. Share examples of what happens when the right people are missing (e.g., swoop and poop). This should trigger them to include more people in this list.

Educating your client on what stakeholders are and what healthy teams look like is a critical step. Give it the time it needs!

Use our stakeholder analysis template to make a list

To help guide the outcome, work with the project owner(s) to create a stakeholder analysis matrix—also sometimes referred to as a stakeholder register.

The goal is to uncover all potential stakeholders—both obvious and hidden—who might be part of this project. This prepares you for interviewing and mapping your stakeholders, which you’ll do in following steps.

The example below shows you how you might format your stakeholder matrix. We created a free stakeholder analysis template to help you get started.

Example of a Stakeholder Analysis Template

Do what you can to fill in stakeholders you already know about before the meeting, then work through the rest together on the call. If needed, the client can finish it as a homework assignment.

As you identify people who may be involved in the project, be sure to note their possible role, project impact, priorities, and concerns. It’s a great time to identify potential red flags and conflicting individual priorities.  

Once complete, look over the list, and make sure you’ve included 1-2 people who match each of these questions:

  • Who has ultimate authority over this project?
  • Who will come in at the last minute to derail your project?
  • Who is important to the project but won’t invest their time?
  • Who might cause ongoing disruptions?
  • Who is your project champion?
  • Who creates and adds all the content?
  • Who has helpful past experience?

Keep in mind, this won’t be your final key stakeholder list—just a list of folks you might need to include. You’ll finalize the list and map stakeholders to roles later in the process.

Step 3: Conduct stakeholder interviews

Now it’s time to analyze your list and decide who will be a key stakeholder for the project. From there, you can organize them into roles and priority—a process known as stakeholder mapping.

Before you get to mapping though, I recommend doing a bit more research and analysis. If possible, meet with several stakeholders to learn more about them and their expectations in stakeholder interviews.

Stakeholder interviews enable you to build a better understanding of the project, users, and organization with the people who are invested in the outcome of the work.

The process will help you remove existing bias, add diverse perspectives, and uncover critical information to inform your stakeholder engagement plan and project scope. It also gives you the first opportunity to build relationships and empathy with those involved in the project.

While it would be ideal to talk to everyone on your stakeholder matrix, you likely have time and/or budget constraints. So how do you decide which stakeholders to interview?

I recommend digging deeper with these stakeholder groups:

  • Project owner: Learn about the ins and outs of the company in a 1:1 conversation before the rest of the group gets involved.
  • Decision-makers: Understand how they’ll make decisions and how you can work together with ease.
  • Key executives: These are the people who will check out for the bulk of the project but could derail it at any moment. Find out what really matters to them.
  • Doers: These folks are on the ground doing the work each day. Understand their needs and concerns so you can make their work more efficient and delightful.
  • Political bombs: These people typically oppose the group’s opinion and hold some authority within the organization. Project owners often have a difficult time managing them. You want to build a bridge to them early and hear out their concerns.
  • Secondary stakeholders: Individuals or groups (such as departments) that will be greatly impacted by the outcome but won’t be regularly involved in the project. Hearing their voice early enables you to include good ideas and also avoid any late project derailments.

Use these conversations to embrace how different project stakeholders see their world. Give them space to get things off their chest, and consider how they might show vs tell you their perspective.

If a stakeholder has trouble articulating needs, provide scenarios, and ask them how they feel about it.

Examples of good stakeholder interview questions to ask

So what questions should you ask the stakeholders you interview? Start with a stakeholder interview template that includes a full spectrum of questions you might want to ask.

Then prioritize and customize the questions based on your stakeholder’s availability and role in the project. This is especially critical if you need to piggyback on another meeting or stakeholder interview.  

Here are some sample interview questions you might consider asking project stakeholders:

  • Tell me about yourself, your role, and how you hope to be involved in this project.
  • What is the focus of your department? What are your current goals?
  • How does your department overlap with this project scope?
  • Tell me about your technical capabilities.
  • How much time do you have available for this project?
  • How do you prefer to receive information?
  • How are decisions made within the organization?
  • Who owns the “X” process, and what tools and steps do you use?
  • What is your meeting culture like?
  • What presentation style works best for your team?
  • Describe the current political climate at the organization.
  • How have similar projects in your organization worked in the past? What made them successful? What took them off course?
  • How will your organization measure project success?
  • What communication tools does your organization currently use?
Team and stakeholders
  • From your perspective, who owns the project? Who is the final decision-maker?
  • What are your current frustrations with the team, and how do you work together?
  • Have we overlooked any additional stakeholders in this process?
  • Has your team discussed how you’ll gather and share feedback?
  • Is your team quick to complete tasks, or does it take quite a bit of time?
  • Do you need us to be part of any communication with secondary and executive stakeholders?
  • What are your project goals?
  • What are your current frustrations with the team, and how do you work together?
  • What other goals do your team members have?
  • How will you measure project success?
  • What new ideas do you have that might not have been noted yet?
  • What is your biggest concern about completing the project?
  • Are there any deadlines and events that would impact the project timeline or your team’s availability?

Walk into the meeting with up to 15 questions, ordering them from most to least important. You won’t get to all of the questions, so be aware of what you must have answers to.

Don’t be afraid of using this time from your budget. You’ll easily save your team from costly stakeholder and scope issues down the road, so it will all even out.

Finally, while it’s always best to speak directly with someone, you can send stakeholders a short survey if schedules don’t line up. Any feedback is better than none.

Download a free stakeholder interview template.

Step 4: Map stakeholders by role and priority

Now that you’ve gathered as much information on your stakeholders as possible, it’s time to map them to stakeholder groups.

Stakeholder mapping is an exercise in which you visually group stakeholders based on their interest and authority. Of course, don’t let your past experience go to waste. If someone straddles multiple groups, recommend the right direction.

This exercise will allow you to take the many users you identified in the stakeholder analysis and group them together to allow you to more easily manage them. It will also give you a way to communicate roles and responsibilities to all your stakeholders.

If you’ve done this step before, you might have used a 4-box grid with an axis for power and an axis for interest.  

Example of a power-interest grid in stakeholder management

Here's how each quadrant of the power/interest grid applies to stakeholders:

  • High power + low interest = Actively consult these stakeholders
  • High power + high interest = Regularly engage this stakeholder group
  • Low power + low interest = Keep these stakeholders informed
  • Low power + high interest = Maintain the interest of this stakeholder group

While this is a common stakeholder mapping diagram in the project management world—and is certainly a reasonable next step—I prefer another approach for 3 reasons:

  1. After completing the stakeholder matrix and interviews, I already have a good sense of where folks land in each quadrant, so it feels a bit duplicative.
  2. That diagram doesn’t help me and my clients understand, Now what? Essentially, if someone falls in a certain box, what does that mean to all of us in a tangible way?
  3. I like to minimize the number of documents I have to keep up with and require my stakeholders to understand. Therefore, I want my mapping step to lead me right into my stakeholder engagement plan, using the same document.

Here’s an example of a stakeholder engagement plan I created with the stakeholder mapping portion of the document highlighted:

Example of a Stakeholder Engagement Plan

Simply take every potential stakeholder you identified in your stakeholder analysis, and categorize them into one of your stakeholder groups. In our example, we organized stakeholders into the following 5 groups:

  • Project owner: This person is in charge of running the project from the client side. They’ll bring the right people into the project at the right time based on the stakeholder engagement plan.
  • Final decision-maker: This individual will make all final decisions on the project. Ideally, you’ll only have 1 final decision-maker, but 2 is okay as long as it’s your max.
  • Primary stakeholders: This group typically involves 5-7 people, including both the project owner and final decision-maker. They need capacity to be heavily involved in the project.
  • Secondary stakeholders: These stakeholders need to be involved in the project at some level—either to provide specific feedback or simply be informed about project progress. Their feedback will not derail project direction.
  • Executive approval: These are the people who need to be informed of progress to continue funding the work.

Just keep in mind, every project is different. Another project may have fewer stakeholder groups, though hopefully not much more.

Use your learnings so far to provide stakeholder mapping recommendations, then meet with the project owner(s) to finalize. At this point, they may or may not choose to share it with all the stakeholders.

Step 5: Formalize your stakeholder engagement plan

Now you’re ready to create your stakeholder engagement plan.

A stakeholder engagement plan is a final list of all key stakeholders, how they’ll be involved in the project (tasks and responsibilities), what their authority is, and how you plan to communicate with them.

This plan should not only guide your work as a project manager. It will also steer your project owner and stakeholders. This will be your single source of truth and something you can reference anytime issues arise.

Download a free stakeholder engagement plan template

We created this free stakeholder engagement plan template to help you complete this step more easily. Use the example we’ve provided—along with the information you’ve learned to-date and your past project experiences—to guide its creation.

Example of a Stakeholder Engagement Plan

Then meet with the project owner to discuss where you’ve grouped people and your expectations around their role, responsibilities, authority, and communication. Adjust your plan as needed to ensure the best fit for your stakeholder group and their company culture.

When it feels done, share it with all key stakeholders for final approval. If you think the grid format may be difficult for stakeholders to interpret, do a full group workshop or provide an accompanying explainer video using a tool like Loom. You can also download our stakeholder engagement plan slide deck template to present and share with the group.

No matter how you present your plan, you want everyone to be on the same page about their role, while also providing space for questions and adjustments if someone can’t meet expectations.

Stakeholder management templates

Here’s a recap of all 4 stakeholder management templates we shared in the steps above. Feel free to make a copy and customize any or all of the templates to fit your project and stakeholder needs.

Tips for managing stakeholders to the plan

You did all this work to create an amazing plan that you and your stakeholders are happy with. Now you can relax, right?

Not at all! The work continues as you begin to execute your thoughtful plan. Here are a few ways you can ensure stakeholders stay engaged throughout the project.

Educate and clarify

Help all stakeholders understand their roles and responsibilities. Make sure your stakeholder engagement plan clearly conveys action and accountability.

Remember, this might be their first time as a stakeholder. So be patient and give them reminders throughout the project. Regularly referring back to the document will give it more power and solidify it as the true source of truth.

Translate your plan into tangible next steps

Take your stakeholder engagement plan, and put it into tangible tasks and meetings. Create tasks in your project management tool, and add specific meetings and deadlines to your timeline. Include details about which stakeholders are involved and your expectations about their roles.

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Bring the plan to life through you

The stakeholder engagement plan is just that—a plan, a piece of paper. It’s how you bring it to life that sets the tone for your project and stakeholders. Think about the voice and tone you want to communicate and how you can use your unique style to engage each group.

Make inclusivity a key part of engagement

There will always be stakeholders who just can’t seem to get their voice into the conversation. That’s a big issue if they’re primary stakeholders, so provide space for everyone to be heard and involved.

Sometimes it’s an issue of availability. Sometimes, it’s because other stakeholders take up too much space. Help balance the voices among the group to ensure it’s an inclusive environment.

Monitor, gather feedback, and adjust

As the project moves forward, keep a watchful eye on how the plan’s execution is working. It’s also a good idea to schedule check-ins to gather feedback on how things are going.

You did your best to come up with a good plan, but it still was an estimate. Things can change that are out of your control (like staff leaving and joining). And some things just won’t work as you expected. Take what you see and hear, and adjust the plan accordingly.

Deal with difficult stakeholders

Even after all this discussion, you may continue to have difficult stakeholders. It’s important for you and the project owner to address this early, using the stakeholder engagement plan that everyone agreed to as your guide.

Depending on the situation, you might need to shift a difficult stakeholder’s role or even remove them from the project.

Use a collaborative tool to manage stakeholders

To help collaborate with your key stakeholders, you should really consider using a robust project management tool. Streamlining work within a single, centralized location provides critical visibility and accountability for stakeholders.

Who should be included?

Before we dig into the value a tool can provide, you need to think about who should have access. Just because it’s easy to add someone as a user doesn’t mean it’s the right decision.  

Think about each stakeholder individually, and ask yourself the following questions:

  • Does their role require them to see this level of detail?
  • Do they need regular information about the project timeline and/or budget?
  • Do they need frequent access to project files?
  • Do they need to communicate with your team on a weekly basis?
  • Can they learn new technology quickly?

If the answer across the board is yes, let’s get them in! If it’s a combination of nos and maybes, pause and consider if this is the right way to interact with them. Are there better ways to reach them and provide the visibility they need?

You might also consider providing limited access to your project. For example, in TeamGantt, you can share a view-only link to your gantt chart, and many tools offer guest accounts to limit exposure and editing abilities.

Why should you use a tool for stakeholder management?

Now let’s look at the benefits of inviting stakeholders in. Here are a few reasons it may be useful.

Centralized communication

While Slack is great for your team, it isn’t always the best place to put clients and stakeholders.

For one, your team can get a bit casual in Slack. Depending on your relationship and history with the stakeholder, that might not be the right first impression. And if a stakeholder isn’t already using Slack, you’re likely forcing them to learn multiple new tools.

Therefore, look for a platform that includes discussion features. That way you can collaborate on the project with stakeholders and track conversations in one place.

An example of the discussion tab in TeamGantt for collaborating with project stakeholders

Document sharing

Storing files in a central location enables stakeholders to access project documents quickly and easily.

While you can use Google Drive to store, organize, and share files, workplace permissions can complicate access for some clients. If that’s the case, find a tool that allows you to upload documents to tasks and retain past versions.

Example of file sharing and document storage in TeamGantt

Task assignment and notification

Project owners and primary stakeholders will need to complete lots of specific tasks. People forget they have tasks to do—much less when they’re due—if task assignments with all the specifics only exist on a spreadsheet or in an email buried in their inbox. Having a tool to notify them when tasks are assigned (and bug them as due dates approach) is critical.

You can take this a step further by using TeamGantt’s RACI chart feature to assign Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, and Informed roles to tasks. This can give each person an even clearer understanding of whether they need to take action or simply be informed.

Provide training for better stakeholder engagement

All of these features are key to have in a tool to manage stakeholders, but finding the perfect fit won’t matter if you skip training.

At the start of every project, gather any stakeholders who will be invited to use the project management software you select. Walk through all the features you’ll be using, as well as any guidelines for how and when you’ll use those features in your process.

Remember, new tools can quickly overwhelm and frustrate anyone, so training is critical. Starting this project on a good note increases everyone’s chance of success.

Fit your approach to your stakeholders

As you think about how this process should work for you, remember, there’s no one-size-fits all plan for stakeholder management.

When you work on tiny projects with straightforward stakeholders, doing all or most of these steps can be overkill. Instead, focus first on your why and how you can better identify, learn, and collaborate with your stakeholders for that specific project. You might find that taking just a bit here and there is all you need to be successful.

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