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Top 5 Strategies for Stakeholder Engagement

By Marilee Sulewski | June 22, 2020

Projects with multiple stakeholder groups present a unique challenge to owners and their project management teams due to their potential conflicting priorities. It is important to understand each stakeholder group’s specific wants or needs and how those requirements work or conflict with other stakeholders’ objectives. Stakeholder engagement is a way to openly discuss a proposed project, to identify potential challenges and opportunities, and to build consensus within the collective user groups.

Here are five strategies owners should expect their project management teams to employ as part of a successful stakeholder engagement plan:

1. Know your audience

If possible, know as much about your stakeholder participants as possible. What organizations do they represent? What are their roles? How old are they? This information should inform how you prepare your engagement activities and communication style. A project that will be used primarily by students and young adults, for example, will have a very different engagement strategy than one that focuses on seniors’ care or a government facility.

2. Prepare your participants

Introduce yourself by email to participants before the event and circulate a prepared questionnaire to get them thinking about some of the topics up for discussion. Questions can focus on the proposed project’s long-term goals, objectives and uses, as well as how the building/project/initiative will improve the current situation. This helps participants clarify their “vision” for the end deliverable, and better prepares them to describe and work toward that vision during the engagement session.

3. Frame the discussion

Instead of an agenda, structure the event around a series of progressive questions that lead participants through the planning thought process (i.e. identify a problem you’d like to solve, brainstorm possible solutions, pick one solution and describe how you would implement it, describe some of the challenges you may encounter etc.). The overall planning process can seem overwhelming at first but by breaking it down into smaller components, participants can focus on each element separately without losing sight of the overall objective.

4. Make it interactive

Plan activities that get people moving around and interacting with different participants throughout the event. For example, you can take participants back to elementary school by providing art supplies and encouraging them to draw or build something that conveys their ideas. Organize brainstorming discussions with smaller groups and have each group write their thoughts on poster boards and present them to the larger group. This will allow all participants to have a voice, even if they are not comfortable speaking in front of a large group.

5. Get people talking

Provide opportunities for people to speak as part of smaller groups and the larger group. This can be done through group discussions, activity stations, presentations, brainstorming, and other formats. If you can, identify individuals beforehand that may prefer to stay in the background and find ways for them to participate, such as by asking them to take notes or pass out props and materials. Never underestimate the power of food to get people talking. Breaking for snacks, coffee and tea, and other refreshments encourages participants to move around and make conversation with others, leading to increased engagement and the sharing of ideas.

While current physical distancing restrictions do limit the type and size of public engagement activities, alternative engagement strategies such as online surveys, social media activities, online design charrettes, video interviews and online discussions can be used and have proven very successful in the current environment. Video conferencing platforms offer the option of splitting participants into multiple, smaller groups for portions of the engagement event, and to screenshare content. These online platforms also have a chat option for comments or questions and can be videotaped and shared with a broader group if required.

The goal of any stakeholder engagement activity is to collect information that will inform decisions about a project and to facilitate consensus despite conflicting stakeholder needs. By using these strategies, project managers can engage with stakeholder groups in a dynamic and effective way to gather the information required to deliver a project that meets (or exceeds!) expectations.