CXO

How to stop stakeholders from sabotaging projects

When projects succeed, we hear about team collaboration, but when projects fail many look to leaders. Here's why all stakeholders are responsible for project failures and how to ensure that everyone works together.

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Image: iStock/Ridofranz

Let's start by defining a project stakeholder. According to the Project Management Institute (PMI), a project stakeholder can be anyone person or group who might "affect, be affected by, or perceive itself to be affected by a decision, activity, or outcome of a project."

To take things one step further let's take a look at the various types of project stakeholders that may exist. These stakeholders can be primary or secondary, meaning primary stakeholders directly impact, or are directly impacted by project activities and results. Secondary stakeholders usually indirectly impact or are indirectly impacted.

  • Internal stakeholders can be company owners, directors, management, employees, consultants.
  • External stakeholders can be vendors, clients, governing bodies, business partners, other companies, among others.

SEE: 5 tips on identifying the right project stakeholders

Primary and secondary stakeholders can be internal or external. When an internal or external stakeholder takes on a direct role within a project, they are accepting responsibility for their contributions, participation, successes and failures in relation to overall project success. They are an integral part of a team; if one part breaks down, the whole team and project is put at risk. This means all stakeholders are ultimately responsible for project failure.

At Logical Front, an engineering, design and integration company, founder and CEO John Lane has overseen hundreds of major IT projects in the past seven years. Lane believes it's stakeholders that control the budget for projects. "They ultimately control what internal resources, external consultants, and other assets (hardware and software) will be used on a project," he added.

Based on his experience as an IT project leader and founder of Bold Array, a custom web applications company, Josh Nolan said, "Stakeholders are a key component to projects success or failures...it is always easier to place blame on the project manager or lead since that member of the team holds a lot of responsibility for the project's success." He believes stakeholders are equally responsible for project success or failure because more often than not a PM will move forward based on their feedback and direction. He agrees that stakeholders should be physically and emotionally engaged and invested in a project in order to produce the best end results.

Ed Brzychcy, president and founder of Blue Cord Management, a leadership development coaching and consulting firm said, "Stakeholders play a significant part in project failure, as a successful team must account for as many outside variables as possible when moving a project forward." He also noted that "Customer tastes, outside lobbyists (especially those who are against the project for one reason or another), and pressure from competition may all play a significant factor in changing the expectations or a project or altering its outcomes despite any best practices from the team."

The impact of intentional or unintentional stakeholder sabotage on projects

Based on his experience, Brzychcy said that when it comes to the impact of sabotage on projects, "The greatest impact that I have seen is the unknown." In his opinion, "managers may have a certain view or perspective of what they are attempting, but many times will become blind to anything outside of a certain viewpoint." He said that external pressures that play into project failures are often not factored into the planning process, yet ultimately require drastic changes that the team is not prepared to make.

"Stakeholders have become unresponsive during a project in order to cause delays or not provide feedback or direction" said Nolan. He added that this lack of communication can lead to delays, project scope issues, budget issues, and project team disengagement.

At Logical Front, Lane said, "Often, we see stakeholders request more information than is needed to make to a decision. This can include multiple follow-up requests. This delays the project and causes it to miss deadlines."

What can be done to help stakeholders change their behavior and improve project outcomes?

"It is always best to have the stakeholders be included in critical meetings. Here they can voice their concerns early and request needed information. This also allows everyone to agree on a timeline for when critical decisions need to be made," said Lane.

To address any form of stakeholder sabotage, Brzychcy recommended that leaders "maintain a holistic approach to projects and carefully game out several courses of action for any undertaking." He believes that "by listing the different stakeholders, and attempting to predict what their moves and countermoves may be to any actions taken, can help address problems before they occur as well as providing a contingency plan for any future negative developments." Brzychcy also said that project managers need to be aware of what they don't know and spend the time filling in any knowledge gaps. Continual communication is an easy way to keep stakeholders emotionally invested and interested, said Nolan. There may be times when despite all efforts, a stakeholder remains disinterested in the project. "It may become necessary, ask for a new lead or point of contact on the stakeholder's team; this can re-energize the project and keep things moving forward," he said.

Does this mean the blame for project failure should placed on any one person? Absolutely not. Usually, project failures are the result of a sequence of occurrences or diminished efforts, where more than one individual had the opportunity to make a decision, or take corrective action and may have missed the mark. At the end of the day any individual stakeholder, as well as all combined stakeholders are responsible for the success or failure of projects. The sum of all parts, as well as all parts combined, can make or break the desired outcome. When any of those parts provides a negative outcome, ultimately everyone loses in one way or another.

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About Moira Alexander

Moira Alexander is the author of "LEAD or LAG: Linking Strategic Project Management & Thought Leadership" and Founder & President of Lead-Her-Ship Group. She's also a project management and IT freelance columnist for various publications, and a contr...

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