ETHOS Digital Issue 10, Mar 2023
In our conversations about prioritisation in the workplace, the focus is often on which projects or pieces of work to prioritise, and which to deprioritise, based on organisational aims and requirements. An important but often overlooked aspect of this process is the human perspective: how to manage the expectations of internal and external stakeholders.
Internal stakeholders include staff who are working on the project; bosses; project sponsors and project champions; and teams or departments affected by project outcomes. Some projects may also have external stakeholders: people and organisations served by the project or who may be affected by its outcomes.
When a project is deprioritised or dropped, there will inevitably be an emotional impact on the stakeholders involved, to varying degrees. Some staff may be happy that part of their time is now freed up while others may experience a sense of loss; they may also question the value of the work they have done in the past, or even their own value as employees. They may also feel angry about the time and effort they perceive to have been wasted on the work thus far. They may also be concerned about how their own performance will be appraised if the project they have been working on is stopped. Bosses, project sponsors and champions may be disappointed and push back on decisions about deprioritisation, especially if these are at odds with their own priorities; they may feel that their credibility, power base and performance are now at stake. External stakeholders who currently benefit or would have benefited from project outcomes may be inconvenienced and feel unvalued.
If such negative feelings are ignored, disgruntled or disengaged stakeholders may resist or even undermine deprioritisation efforts. If you find yourself having to manage different internal and external stakeholders when a project is deprioritised, here are some suggestions on how to proceed:
Managing Bosses, Project Sponsors, Project Champions
- Involve them early in discussions on prioritisation. Build alignment on the criteria for prioritisation and clarify their expectations.
- Avoid unhelpful behaviours such as second guessing the boss, trying to look good to supervisors, pandering to what the senior management team wants while disregarding ground reality. These behaviours may lead to suboptimal decisions.
- Seek their input on the possibilities for prioritisation by asking: What are we missing? What are you curious about? What do you want to ask us?
- Management experts Roger Martin and Jennifer Riel offer further tips on how to engage your stakeholders in this video.1
- Guide staff through the deprioritisation process. One model that is widely used for change management is ADKAR— Awareness of the need for change; Desire to participate in and support the change; Knowledge on how to change; Ability to implement skills and knowledge; Reinforcement to sustain the change.2
- Help staff understand why priorities are being re-evaluated, the criteria used, and why their project is being deprioritised.
- Acknowledge that some staff may experience negative emotions and allay their concerns.
- Be clear about what will happen to the project and when. For instance, does deprioritisation mean dropping the project completely, finding alternative resourcing for it, or reducing its scope and level of involvement? Is the deprioritisation supposed to start at once or is it planned for three months down the road?
- Where feasible, involve staff in the discussion on how or when the project will be deprioritised as this could give them a greater sense of control over the whole situation as well as offer a sense of closure.
- Explore how staff will be affected and help them move forward from the situation, e.g., focusing on other projects, developing new skills to take on new projects.
- Recognise efforts to deprioritise and emphasise the positive outcomes they bring.
Managing Internal or External Stakeholders Affected by the Project Outcomes
- Engage them early in conversations about the deprioritisation. Help them understand why priorities are being re-evaluated, the criteria used, and why their project is being deprioritised.
- Explore with them how they will be affected, and work with them to discuss a feasible process and timeline for implementing the deprioritisation. For instance, if a service that is currently being provided is to be discontinued in three months’ time, could we explore with them how they might be able to operate without the service? Alternatively, could we work with them to find other resourcing options or gradually decreasing our level of involvement while building up their internal capability to take over the piece of work?
- This research article 3 describes project change stakeholder communication practices in two different case contexts, and highlights how effective communication ensures stakeholder participation in the change management processes (see Box story for a summary).
In summary, any deprioritisation plan should include some consideration of how to manage the impact on various internal and external stakeholders. Deprioritisation is akin to a change process, and it is important to address not only the technical aspect of the situation but also people’s emotions and expectations. Otherwise, efforts at deprioritisation may be futile or even counterproductive.
Effective Communication Ensures Stakeholder Participation in the Change Management Process
Case 1: Effective communication of project change in a large-scale energy infrastructure project with multiple international stakeholder
In the planning phase of the project, various project core teams consisting of participants from all key stakeholders groups were formed and maintained throughout the entire project life cycle. Communication routines and platforms between different project stakeholders were set up and made explicit.
This stable and well-organised system ensured the efficient flow of project information among the stakeholders, such as when changes had to be made to the scope of work. Clear and timely communication promoted stakeholder understanding and trust, allowing effective decisions on project changes to be made by the project core teams even during conflict situations.
The communication routines helped to maintain stakeholder engagement throughout the project life cycle, leading to positive outcomes for the project.
Case 2: Ineffective communication of project change in a small-scale facility development project with relatively short timeframe and limited budget
In the planning phase of this construction project, different stakeholder groups came together to co-create project goals. However, during the technical planning and implementation phase, a more task-oriented approach was adopted, and work efficiency was preferred over required project functionality. Communications with the stakeholders was ad hoc.
In addition, required changes during the construction phase were not adequately communicated to key stakeholders, and decisions were made solely by the construction team. This was likely because the lack of clear and established communication routines created the perception that seeking input from the various stakeholders would be onerous.
As a result of these changes, the needs of some stakeholders who would be using the facility could not be met. This was only discovered during the final inspection of the premises, and the contractor then had to do additional work and installation.
The lack of clear and timely communication with key stakeholders resulted in decreasing stakeholder involvement and unsatisfactory project outcomes.
- Tip #1: Engaging Stakeholders, Harvard Business Review, video file, https://hbr.org/video/3390395863001/tip-1-engaging-stakeholders.
- The Prosci ADKAR Model, https://www.prosci.com/methodology/adkar.
- Adapted from: Aurangzeab Butt, Marja Naaranoja and Jussi Savolainen, “Project Change Stakeholder Communication”, International Journal of Project Management 34 (2016): 1579–95, 10.1016/j.ijproman.2016.08.010, accessed March 1, 2023, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/308352652_Project_change_stakeholder_communication.