Most of the time, the IT department lurks quietly in the background, humming along supporting business systems and rarely attracting attention unless something’s gone wrong. But when it’s time to devote resources to a new project—be it a routine upgrade or major new initiatives—there are suddenly a whole lot of people scrutinizing the process.
While it might feel more natural to stay under the radar, proactive education can prove far more valuable. The secret is knowing who needs to know what when, as well as tailoring your message for the intended audience.
Types of IT stakeholders
There are probably a lot more people that need to know about IT projects than you’d think. The first step to effective communication is figuring out who all of your stakeholders might be. So let’s start by defining what makes a person, group, or organization a stakeholder.
Stakeholders fall into one or more of the following categories:
- They are impacted by the project
- Their approval or resources are required to complete the project
- They must do something integral to the project’s completion
- They have a vested interest in the project
Another way of breaking down the different types of stakeholders is the nature of their interest:
- They will rely on the outcome of the project to do their job
- They are being asked to do something integral to the completion of the project
- They just want to be generally aware of it
There are plenty of decision-making frameworks that break down stakeholders into groupings based on their role within the project (such as DACI), but they all share a common understanding of who needs to be in the know versus who gets to actually make a decision.
With this in mind, you can step back and try to map out all the stakeholders for each project. You’ll be surprised how big the list gets when you start adding everyone up, including:
- Project team members and leadership
- Senior management
- Internal and/or external customers for the project’s deliverables
- Line managers contributing resources to the project
- Suppliers, consultants, and contractors involved in the project delivery
- Customer support/service
- End users
Stakeholder analysis may uncover a whole lot of people to keep up with, but it’s well worth the effort to invest the time and energy required to keep them in the know about how the project is progressing.
Why is stakeholder communication important?
Stakeholders not only care about the project, but some are critical to its success (or failure). Don’t make the mistake of waiting for a crisis point when you desperately need something. Instead, establish well-planned and considered communication strategies for potential asks in the future while improving your visibility across the organization.
By regularly providing updates, stakeholders feel informed about the project’s progress and can get some early warning if issues potentially bubble up to their level. This reduces the element of surprise and allows for expectation management when problems or delays arise.
Whether you’re running way behind schedule and over budget or speeding ahead and saving cash along the way, no one wants to be surprised or feel like they’re missing information others already possess. Getting out ahead of things creates a culture of transparency and dialogue instead of secrecy and stunning revelations.
Stakeholder communication is also a great way to highlight good work being performed by the team. It’s an excellent platform to recognize the contributions of colleagues and boost your own profile, too.
How to involve IT stakeholders
Stakeholders can play many roles during a project’s life cycle. Some interactions may be for purely political, cover-your-butt purposes, but they often add real value during the process when properly activated.
Getting stakeholders involved productively (versus only interacting with them when you need something) all begins with communication. They can’t be helpful if they don’t know what’s going on.
But beyond just keeping them informed, stakeholders should also be leveraged for the knowledgeable resources they are. They didn’t get to be stakeholders for nothing; they possess relevant knowledge, expertise, and experiences that can be assets throughout the course of an IT project.
People generally love having an excuse to provide their input and opinion, so don’t miss the opportunities out there to let them feel like they’re contributing. Not only can their insights and pointers help you manage the project more effectively and solve issues that pop up during the course of a project, but their involvement also increases their own sense of investment in the eventual outcome.
When people feel even a tiny sense of ownership, they become more emotionally tied to a project and motivated to see it succeed. Having a bunch of cheerleaders across the organization is far more helpful than an array of noncommittal individuals with varying levels of interest and little skin in the game.
Seven tactics for effective IT stakeholder communication
Apply the Goldilocks principle to updates
Just like that hungry, sleepy fairy tale character, everyone has different preferences. But instead of worrying about porridge temperature and mattress firmness, IT managers should be concentrating on cadence and depth when it comes to stakeholder updates.
Figuring out what’s “just right” isn’t always easy, but don’t be afraid to ask your stakeholders what they prefer. Do they want updates weekly or monthly? Do they want to dive into the details or are they satisfied with a high-level brief and will follow up if they have more questions? Do they like quick emails, slide decks or in-person briefing sessions?
Getting a feel for their preferences means you’re delivering just enough to keep them satisfied and updated without drowning them in more data than they’ll ever process. The goal is making sure they feel included and informed so they can pipe up if they have concerns and have the appropriate context when their opinion or approval is required.
Battle against “fake news”
Unfortunately you can’t control the entire narrative for your project, and stakeholders might get some faulty or false reporting from other sources. Awareness of these misleading updates and counteracting them quickly is key to keeping your stakeholders from souring on your project.
“You don’t want them to be subject to gossip or get incorrect information that might sway their opinions in the project. If they do make an assumption or get misinformation, you have to nip that poison in the bud and provide them with the truth,” says Peter Landau of ProjectManager.com. “Sometimes they might not want to hear that truth, but better it comes from you, so you can control and manage it.”
Know what you’re asking for
Every update should be couched in what’s expected of the person or group being updated. But there’s no reason to keep that to yourself. Begin each update by letting the recipient know what’s expected of them.
For example, if it’s simply to keep them informed, you can begin the communication by stating “This is purely informational and no action on your part is required at this time, but feel free to ask any questions you may have.” But if you do have an ask, call it out up front with something along the lines of “Please review this update and note that the project team requires XYZ from you at this time.”
The goal of each communication for every stakeholder is to ensure the project gets what it needs to stay on track, and gives you the context to provide just enough information to each recipient in their format of choice.
Stick to your cadence, even if there’s nothing to say
So you committed to bi-weekly updates for the management team yet nothing particularly interesting happened in the previous fortnight… but that’s no excuse to skip out on an update cycle! You’ve set an expectation and now you need to follow through, even if you’re simply telling them that there’s no actual news and everything is still the same status as last time around.
This very unnewsworthy update is still important because it shows you’re doing your bit and the stakeholders still have visibility into the project status. If they don’t hear anything, you might appear unreliable and their imaginations will have to fill in the gaps.
Your status updates and communication shouldn’t begin with you staring at a blank page. Figure out which elements should be on every communication for each cohort of stakeholders and create a template.
Now you’re just updating what’s IN the template instead of trying to figure out what should be included in the update itself. Not only will this save you time, but it will also create additional consistency for the stakeholders themselves, making it easier for them to digest the information and know if there’s anything required of them at this time.
Use appropriate language
Even though IT projects are inherently technical, your audience may not all have the same familiarity and vocabulary. Avoid the jargon and explain it in plain English for the non-techies in the audience, saving the gory details for individuals that will actually appreciate and understand them.
Remember what THEY want out of this
While stakeholder communication contains an element of protecting your own self-interests, ultimately the communication should be tailored to what the stakeholder cares about, and that will vary greatly across the array of people you’ve identified.
“Once you know your stakeholders, it’s important to evaluate their expectations, particularly how they’ll measure project success,” says Eileen O’Loughlin of Software Advice. “This can vary drastically from one stakeholder to another. For example, a project sponsor might commend a project that finishes on or under budget, while a sales team might measure success by deliverables that exceed customer expectations.”
Always keep their motivations in mind when selecting which tidbits to share and which to keep in reserve. For example, end users probably only care about capabilities and timing, while management is going to be concerned with budget and resource allocation.
No matter how smart, talented, and capable your team is, most projects can’t be completed in a vacuum and require the help, approval or awareness of many stakeholders. These relationships can’t be taken for granted or neglected; so invest in a communication strategy that’s useful and informative for them while not being overly burdensome for you and your team.
Finding the perfect balance between oversharing and hoarding all the details might be tricky at first, but once you get in the groove it just becomes a natural part of managing the overall project. While it might feel like annoying project overhead, it can be a lifesaver when things go sideways and you have the support and understanding of stakeholders who were fully informed along the way instead of everyone blaming you because they don’t know any better.