How To Draft A Stakeholder Communication Plan

If you are a Project Manager, you'll be familiar with the term "stakeholder". Your project stakeholder is someone who has an interest or concern in your project.

Well, that definition means a WHOLE lot of people qualify to be stakeholders, doesn't it! If you're rolling out a core banking system, there'd be hundreds, if not thousands of stakeholders.

I've always had problems managing a large number of stakeholders. Sometimes, we're just so caught up with the daily issues in our projects that we forget to update your key stakeholders.

And when the time comes for sign-offs - guess what? Your stakeholder has no idea what happened in your project and doesn't want to sign. That'll spell trouble for you.

In this article, I want to go into details about how you can draft and use a powerful stakeholder management tool - the Stakeholder Communication Plan. If you use this tool regularly, I promise your stakeholders will be much more engaged with you and your chances of project success will improve.

1. Why Do We Need A Stakeholder Communication Plan?

Before we delve into the specifics of the Stakeholder Communication Plan, let's try to understand why we even need one.

Sure, I've run projects where I don't use a Stakeholder Communication Plan. I simply update my project stakeholders "as and when I feel like it". Unfortunately, most of the projects I've run in that manner have ended up delayed or in trouble.

I've also seen projects which run for only e.g. 3 weeks - with so short a duration that "stakeholder management" doesn't really make sense.

Still, for the medium to long term projects, a Stakeholder Communication Plan definitely makes sense. It could even be part of the deliverable set, if you're a vendor providing a service to a customer organization.

So here's why we need a Stakeholder Communication Plan:

Stakeholder expectations. Different stakeholders have certain different opinions as to what the project should do for them. You need to make sure you understand and document those expectations, and the best way to do this is by meeting them regularly and updating them on the progress of the project.

To organize these meetings, you use a Stakeholder Communication Plan. If you don't speak to your stakeholders until your system is about to be delivered, you run a very high risk of giving something that's what the stakeholders want. That, in turn, will cause project delays or financial overrun.

Project Visibility. The second reason why a Stakeholder Communication Plan is needed is to create "visibility". Sometimes, as Project Managers, we get lost in the ground issues and forget that somewhere up in management heaven, a senior stakeholder is wondering what's going on with the project.

Let me explain. Your project, like it or not, is just one of HUNDREDS of projects in the organization. Stakeholders (senior management, in particular) have no time to "check in" on what you're doing.

They rely on you to update them.

I repeat - they rely on you to update them.

So it's absolutely essential to keep your project visible to management. Update your senior stakeholders regularly, even if you've not progressed much.

And you especially need to update them when there's a serious risk or issue. Don't sit there and wait and hope things will get better. Remember my golden rule about project success? Constant communication!

Tip: Even if you've not progressed much in your project, make an effort to update your key senior stakeholders. These people like to be updated. Don't surprise or update them only near the end of the project.

Structured Communications. The final reason why we need a Stakeholder Communication Plan is that we need structure. Stakeholders (again, especially senior management) don't like to be updated adhoc", e.g. while you're washing cups in the pantry, or when you pass them in the corridor.

You have to communicate upfront that you will update them twice a week, on Tue morning 10 am to 11 am and Fri afternoon from 2 pm to 3 pm.

Your stakeholders are busy people - respect their time.

2. A Sample Stakeholder Communication Plan

Ok, now that we understand why we need a Stakeholder Communication Plan, let me share my lovely template with you.

You can click here to download it.

This Stakeholder Communication Plan is one I've used on many projects and it's worked remarkbly well.

I'm not a propopent of large, complex project templates - I like to keep things simple.

Those of you who've seen my Project Charter template will know what I mean.

Just the bare essentials and enough to get the job done.

Once you've downloaded the Word template, you'll see that it's simple and easy-to-use. Of course, this is my format - feel free to customize it to your liking.

What you need to do, as a responsible Project Manager is to share this template with your Project Sponsor and Project Team. Remember, everyone on your project needs to buy in to this and agree to the structure and form of the document.

In the following, I'd like to delve a bit into the different sections of the template document.

Communication Scope and Objectives

If you look at the template, you'll see that the first few sections are about Scope and Objectives.

I won't elaborate much here, except to say that you want to describe what the plan is about.

For Scope - you may have a couple of lines about what the plan covers, e.g. communications approach, project awareness and training initiatives.

For Objectives - you'd write something about what the plan will achieve, e.g. communicate PMO processes and tool(s), improved communications between project managers, departmental heads and executives, usage of structureed PM tools and techniques, as well as structured, periodic dialog with key stakeholders regarding the performance of the project.

Communication Approach

Next, my template goes into the Communication Approach. This section is important, not least because it includes the identification of internal and external stakeholders.

Here are two guidelines I have about identifying stakeholders - take note of these, they are important.

Stakeholder prioritization method. You should learn how to prioritize your stakeholders. Remember, a project can have hundreds of stakeholders! Who are the key ones you should be updating?

There are established methods to do stakeholder prioritization, e.g. by drawing stakeholder maps (I'll describe this in more in a future article).

Tip: A project can have hundreds of stakeholders! Learn to prioritize and find out who are the ones you REALLY need to update. Usually, they are the top bosses and the ones who have budgetary control of your project, or who have to sign-off on your deliverables.

Who signs off the budget? Regardless of who you priortize as your stakeholder, remember that your Project Sponsor, i.e. the person paying the project cost is your ULTIMATE stakeholder. Even if his or her boss or colleagues are against the project, he or she is with you.

So remember to be on your Project Sponsor's side.

Heck, in my projects, I sometimes request to sit next to my Project Sponsor if possible. The two of you need to talk and communicate so much, you may as well sit nearby.

Communication Topics

The next section of my Communication Plan template covers the topics you will communicate to your stakeholders. What's the content of your message? Is it a project status update? Or a risk and issue log? Or perhaps it's a "What's On This Week" type of newsletter? Clarifying these things upfront helps create awareness and understanding of your project management methodologies among project stakeholders:

And hey, one point about stakeholder communications I'd like to make. Remember thar your messages to stakeholders should not only be about how well the project is progress, etc.

I know of too many Project Managers who only want to communicate the good news. They craft their message to be things senior management wants to hear.

Now, while we all do that in some way, it is NOT a good idea to hide a particularly serious issue from management and "sweep it under the carpet".

Case Study: I was once the Project Manager of a large core banking system implementation in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The users had totally missed requirements for two interface points between a legacy system and the new core banking system.

Because we were already done with development when those missing interfaces were discovered, they would be considered change requests.

But these were "must build" changes because the new system COULD NOT go live without them. Basically it meant that the project had to be delayed - we had no choice.

My mistake was that I only updated my Project Sponsor I think a week and a half later. You can imagine that he was FURIOUS when he found out only later that the project would be delayed.

So my lesson learnt - don't sweep serious project issues "under the carpet". It doesn't pay.

Tools and Techniques

Next up, my template covers the tools and techniques employed by your stakeholder communication procedures. Now, your communications message can take many forms, e.g.

  • Presentations
  • Training Sessions
  • Discussions
  • E-Mail
  • PMO Newsletter
  • Intranet website
  • Tutorials/Webcasts

And if you use an online PM tool (e.g. Basecamp) - you could even point to an online cloud-based site with real-time updates of your latest announcements, observations, etc.

Make use of these tools but DO NOT abuse them. I've seen project managers go overboard with email communications and - in a word - it's so irritating!

Communications Calendar

The final section in the template document is the Communications Calendar.

To be honest, when I first started out as a Project Manager, I never thought that stakeholder communications had to be put into a calendar.

I just thought "Hey, I've not spoken to Mr X for some time, so it's a good time to catch him for a coffee this afternoon and talk about the project."

Granted, it's ok to provide these adhoc updates as and when you like it.

However, it is absolutely critical to have non-negotiable, mandatory regular communications go out as well. This will prevent cases where you're so abosrbed in your work you forget that you need to update stakeholders.

The very act of setting up a regular meeting, e.g. every Thu afternoon from 4 pm to 5 pm, forces your brain to go into "Project Stakeholder Update Mode" every Thu. And that's a good thing.

By the way, the communications calendar example you see in my template is a large-scale Core Banking System Implementation Project example - hence the large number of stakeholder meetings or communications installed.

For smaller projects, you will definitely not need so many stakeholder meetings or communications.

Conclusion

Great! I hope my little Stakeholder Communication Plan template has got you thinking about how you can regularly communicate project status and progress to your key stakeholders.

If you've always left this type of communication to chance, my advice is to stop doing that!

Get your key stakeholders engaged. Talk to them through structured communications AND through adhoc communications. Never be shy about over-communicating, as I've explained over here.

Learn to apply leverage on this Stakeholder Communication Plan in your next project and drop me a note on how it helped (or did not help) you.

I'd love to hear from you.

Until next time, all the best in your project endeavors!

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