DPM Podcast

DPM Podcast: How To Manage Stakeholders (with Kelly Suter)

By 29/07/2019 No Comments

This podcast is part of an article published on The Digital Project Manager.
You can read the article here.

This podcast is brought to you by Clarizen, the leader in enterprise projects and project management software.

Learn more at clarizen.com

Ben Aston:

Welcome to the DPM podcast where we go beyond theory to give advice that works for leading better digital projects. Thanks for tuning in. I’m Ben Aston, founder of the Digital Project Manager. Now we all know projects would be a whole lot easier to deliver if we didn’t have to worry about those pesky stakeholders or clients getting in the way of us making magic happen. But love them or hate them, the project wouldn’t happen without them. They are paying for it after all.

So really our only option is to find a better way to manage stakeholders, to help them help us do our best work. So keep listening to this podcast on managing stakeholders to find out how you can turn them into project allies and help them feel the project love.

And today I’m joined by fan favorite, all our fans love Kelly Suter and she has moved. You might have been catching her on the videocast recently, but she’s now an executive producer at Mirum Agency. And so that’s a pretty big deal. We talked about this in the videocast and if you haven’t checked out our videocast, go to YouTube and search for the Digital Project Manager and you can find out all about Kelly’s new crazy executive producer role. But Kelly, for those people who haven’t been watching us on the videocast, tell us how is your new gig going?

Kelly Suter:

It’s going really well. So now it’s been between two and three months. I can’t even keep track. It feels like it’s been going a hundred miles an hour, but it’s going very well. It’s a lot going on. I’ve inherited a pretty large project. And so with that you inherit all sorts of process that has been Frankenstein by each of the different producers or project managers that have been on it. So it’s been a healthy challenge for me. But I love a good challenge, so I’m enjoying it.

Ben Aston:

Nice. And so an interesting question to ask people, but I mean maybe this is relevant to you because you’ve just started a new thing, but do you have any advice that you would tell your younger self on your first day in project management or your first day in your new role? What would you tell yourself? What’s the advice that you wish you’d have known right at the start?

Kelly Suter:

Right. I think I would go back and I would tell myself that you will never learn everything and you will never know everything. I think that I expected going into a project management role at the beginning that I would learn the process and I would just keep applying that process and I would get better at it and soon I would just have it down pat like the back of my hand. And the reality is that that process is always evolving, which is why the dpm.com I think is able to exist and is able to be thriving with project managers all over the place, just talking about their experience. So I would tell myself that be comfortable with being uncomfortable because there’s always going to be something new.

Ben Aston:

Yeah. And I think what’s interesting whenever you start a new role is that feeling of somewhat helplessness as you’re like, “Man, I feel so out of my depth. I don’t understand the process. I don’t understand how this place works. Like what am I even doing here?” But then there are some things where you’re like, “Guys, I can’t believe you’re doing it this way. This doesn’t make any sense at all. This is ridiculous. What a bunch of idiots.” So what is your top PM tip that you’ve been telling him or evangelizing in your new role? Has there been anything where you’ve been like, “Guys, do it this way because you’re going to save yourself a whole lot of bother?” Anything that you’ve being able to evangelize and change for the better?

Kelly Suter:

Right. Yes, absolutely. I think in going into a first project management position, I think just listen and be totally open to what’s out there and then immediately get involved in meetups and try to get in workshops or conferences about digital project management because you need to absorb a lot. And then for those going into subsequent project management roles, I used to think that going into those roles each time I would be the one providing more and more insight as what roles came along. But what the reality is is I need to be just as much open into each new role because while I have that new energy, you’re over-caffeinated, you’re in your first day of this new project management role, either at the same job or a different one and you’re ready to implement everything you know, because that’s what at that time you think you’re comfortable with.

But what I have to remind myself is not overstepping right away, finding out what it is, maybe what hasn’t worked already for them, for the team and then applying what you know, after you’ve been able to absorb a little bit. Because I myself can get overzealous thinking, “I know this great thing,” but one, it might’ve already been tried and not worked or might’ve been tried to, you know, someone tried to apply it and it was maybe in the wrong way, it was abrasive or there’s something else that sort of is working that you don’t want to totally knock over. So I think I evangelize being open and as a project manager while we have to drive projects that we’re not totally a bull in a China shop, so to speak about implementing our process.

Ben Aston:

Cool. And so tell us about taking on a new role. What are some of the new kind of challenges you’re dealing with that you weren’t really dealing with before in terms of like the type of projects you’re working on or things you’re having to relearn or learn for the first time?

Kelly Suter:

Yes. So while I’ve always been at agencies, some smaller, up to 50 people and then others up to 5,000 people. So I think, well in each agency experience previously I have had different companies, organizations, brands that I’m working on totally different accounts. This is time that I’m stepping into a role that it’s one large account, a health group account and I have projects within that account.

So what’s unique about this and what’s challenging is that I, well on one hand it’s nice because the account, the different projects that I’m on, each of those project teams are at least somewhat aware of what else is going on that may or may not be challenging or pushing into their timelines and priorities. So that’s nice because I think a challenge with different accounts and totally different companies because you can’t necessarily say, “Hey company A is going to be prioritized over yours this week.”

You have to really … that messaging. So that has been nice going into this. Now what is more challenging is having such a large company and having so many different types of stakeholders, which will absolutely play into our conversation today. But I’m used to having maybe a few stakeholders on a project, but with a company this size, there are so many that actually there’s a lot of communication challenges and a lot of meetings that go on maybe with redundant information and it’s sort of trying to train the client on their end how they can better maybe manage the size of their stakeholder team and how we can most efficiently communicate milestones and progress and what have you.

Ben Aston:

Cool. On top of those challenges, I’m guessing there’s new tools to learn and process to follow. Is there any new tools that you came across at your new place that you’re like, “Hey this is awesome. Everyone should check this out or try using this?”

Kelly Suter:

Yes, actually I am using Hive for the first time at the company at Mirum and that’s actually great. And I’ve heard some blurbs out on Twitter by the DPM and sprinkled here and there throughout the site. And I had never been able to get my hands on it. And here when I came, they have, because Mirum we have different offices across the US and so it requires a lot of smart resourcing and hours management and budget management.

And I actually have never seen a tool that does both the budget and resourcing kind of in one now that is how we apply it. So I haven’t seen how Hive has been used elsewhere, but that has been the new tool that I am really all about. And other than that we’re using Jira. I’ve always been a big Jira fan the Atlassian suite with Jira and Confluence. Yeah. And so those have been the two main tools that we use other than SharePoint for our documentation.

Ben Aston:

Awesome, yeah. Hive, our tool of the month, so go and check them out. But I want to talk about the article that you wrote and yeah, kind of dive into that a bit. And you mentioned stakeholders, which is what you wrote the post about how we manage stakeholders. And if you haven’t read the posts yet, go and check it out. It’s an awesome post and it’s going to give you everything you need to know about managing stakeholders, definitions, examples, but for those people who are thinking, “Hey, stakeholders? Do I even have stakeholders? That sounds like a fancy word.” What are project stakeholders and why should we care?

Kelly Suter:

Right. So stakeholders, you can have anywhere from one to a handful to any number of stakeholders on a project and they are really the group or individual that impacts the outcome of the project. They’re the decision makers, the reviewers on your client side that will be a combination of your point person or they might be who writes the check or that you present deliverables to. So they really are the determining factors of how the outcome of your project looks like and who you’re working with on the client side.

Ben Aston:

Yeah. And you make it quite a good case for being nice to them. And I think I started off this protocol saying about they always just seem to get in the way of projects. I think we can often as PMs think, “These stakeholders, I just … if only we didn’t have stakeholders, we could just do this project properly.” But why do you think it is that we as project managers find stakeholders so challenging?

Kelly Suter:

Yeah. And a number of reasons I think, well, any challenging or bad experience with a stakeholder can really put a bad taste in your mouth, but vice versa, it’s the same for them. I think that especially for DPMs who work in an agency space where you have a number of different accounts, this is your life, you are outputting projects and you’re going through this process quite likely over and over again.

And so going through a deliverable review or a design review or a wireframing session, that is just another day for you. While it’s important and it’s a big part of your projects, it’s usually nothing new if you’re at the point as a PM that you’re presenting these with the team. But for these stakeholders, it might be the big project for that one stakeholder. Your marketing manager, for example, and this is a big project, and usually websites or apps, usually they’re not rebuilt for another maybe four or five years.

This is a big project for them at that time. And while I think there can be this difference in the volume of how often you as a PM are managing this versus the marketing manager on the client side as managing something like this, I think the biggest keyword that I’ve said in other conversations and articles is it really is empathy.

Having empathy to look at the project from the client’s perspective. So I think the stigma of a client getting in the way can be a product of the lack of empathy and empathy is hard to make time for as a PM. It’s hard to take that step back and look at it from the client’s point of view because by all means you can have a frustrating conversation with the client and feel like they’re really just not being fair or collaborative. But I think that the stigma is just something that keeps getting fed, whether it’s an eye roll to your coworker over a phone call or a escalation of an email immediately before really thinking about it. So I think that it’s a hard habit to break because it’s a majority stigma. I really do think.

Ben Aston:

Yeah. And you talk about the full time as stakeholders that we typically have as PMs in agencies and you mentioned the marketing, director of marketing or whoever, someone from the marketing team, that’s kind of one flavor of stakeholder. Another one that we’ll often work with is technical stakeholders.

So the guys who are the IT department, it might be that we’re reporting to them or marketing and technical or it could be someone from sales and often it includes some kind of executive team board who get to sign off everything else as well. And depending on whether or not you’re, I think, running a project that has primarily marketing stakeholders, all from very technical stakeholders, that leads to a very different kind of projects because obviously marketing people more focused on the brand, on the messaging, on the user experience. Whereas the technical kind of client stakeholders that we get are more focused just on functionality and servers and tech and things like that. But in your experience, right, what’s the most common type of stakeholder? Typically, who’s your client, who’s your primary stakeholder and the one leading the kind of projects that you’ve been working in?

Kelly Suter:

Right. So I would say for websites or apps that are public, not necessarily something like an HR portal or a sales management system, something like that. I think if it’s client facing you can get to it by a public URL or it’s a public app you can download. Then largely my stakeholder is the marketing folks or someone in marketing because they are, I mean it’s something that brand is so heavily applied to and that the marketing team or individual is writing the copy.

And so it just naturally, I think, falls into the marketing team’s lap when it comes to them having to build some sort of digital thing. So that is who I have had the most experience working with. That being said, now in my current role, because this is such a large … my current project right now is such a large, it was started out as a migration of 200 plus sites and it’s turned into a rebuild of those 200 plus sites with lots of forms and information that’s based on state validation and all that. So with that, I’m actually working now more with technical stakeholders because we are taking information that already existed in such a way and they wanted exactly like that, just rebuilt in a different platform. So working with a lot of technical folks now, but largely otherwise it’s been marketing.

Ben Aston:

And who is your favorite? Like if you, if you were to pick a favorite type of stakeholder because it’s very kind of the different flavor projects, depending on who that primary stakeholder is. Who’s your favorite kind of type of stakeholders and why?

Kelly Suter:

Right. Oh boy. I would have to say that I personally, I like a mix between technical and executive actually because technical, it’s very black and white. It’s very show me the data, show me the … or show me the proof. Right? Which I’m very good at just laying it out as is and then executive because it’s to the point, decisions are made quickly, boil it down to the options and let’s move forward. Whereas with marketing and sales it’s less black and white.

And that’s my preference, right? Because I am more of a, depending on what personality test or color personality test you take, I am more data driven, analytical. So that’s my preference. I definitely know of project managers that would much rather stick with sales stakeholders or marketing stakeholders because there it’s more brand driven. They love the creative collaborative process. They love to talk about all of it and then funnel down from there. Whereas yes, I tend to jive more with the technical and executive folks but that’s me.

Ben Aston:

Yeah. Yeah, I think it’s interesting. I mean let’s talk about challenges. So there’s obviously challenges of working with a marketing kind of stakeholders. And I think what you’re alluding to here is the reality that often if we’re working with marketing stakeholders, they might be less interested in the scope document or the statement of work.

Things are a bit less binary with them. It’s like, “Hey, well you know,” or if you’re working with sales people that are like, “Hey, well, we’re paying you a lot of money for this, so can you just make this work?” And whereas a technical person, in my experience anyway, a technical person is more like, “Well, okay, yes, we understand. We set it in the statement of work and so yes, we’ll have to pay you more for that.” But then marketing people might be more on the positive side and marketing stakeholder can often be a bit more flexible sometimes. Sometimes a technical person say, “You said you’d build this,” and then you get to that point in the project and you’re like, “Yeah, well it doesn’t make any sense for us to build that now.”

And the technical stakeholder will say, “But you said you were going to build it,” and you’re like, “Well we don’t need to really, do we?” “But you said you were.” That’s the kind of conversation that I find that I’d have with a technical stakeholder versus a marketing stakeholder who’s always trying to … . And those are some of the challenges I’ve had. But what about you? What are the kind of biggest challenges you’ve had with stakeholders and how have you dealt with that?

Kelly Suter:

Right. That is a good question. I think it can be most challenging when I think dealing with … not dealing with, when collaborating with …

Ben Aston:

Yeah. That’s the right word.

Kelly Suter:

Wording. With collaborating with sales stakeholders, they have, and this is just an example, they have like a goal sales number in mind. And while you may or may not have access to, usually you don’t have access to all the sales numbers, ins and outs. And it’s not like you necessarily need that. They’re so driven to what is the fastest way to get to this number. Well then you have on your end user experience folks who might have a strategy to get there. So they want to kind of dig deeper and say, “Well first, let’s find out who your audience is. Let’s look at the analytics on your current site. Let’s see what’s happening there.” And then it’s like, “Okay, but if we have that conversation, it’s going to be this budget.”

And then the salespeople are like, “No, no, no, no. Just get me there.” And so I think one of the biggest challenges is probably when you have a bit of each of those sales stakeholders, or I’m sorry, each of those stakeholders, whether it be sales, technical, marketing or executive at the table. And then you’re watching this battle of priority go down where the technical folks are like, “But have we talked about our database architecture?” And marketing folks are saying like, “But creative is only halfway done with their branding and sales is saying we have this event launch and it’s in Las Vegas and it’s in a month and a half. But the executive person is saying how much does all of this cost?” So I think the biggest challenge in stakeholders is having to balance and properly prioritize those conversations. And with my project right now, sometimes each of those stakeholders have different meetings set up with our team.

And so priorities are voiced in one way, in one meeting, and then we go to the next meeting and it’s voiced in another way. And then we try to consolidate that and come up with an agreement. And it’s a challenge to find or help the client find a shared goal as ultimately, yes, we all want this thing to launch, this digital thing and we want it to drive traffic and usage, whatever that means form submissions or sales, checkouts.

So I think that writing that story that aligns with each of those stakeholders’ preferences is the challenge. And in my mind, the challenge that gets me excited because then you start connecting the dots. You see that agreement happening. But it’s definitely not something that can be done with a silver bullet. I mean, you’ll have another phase of the project while you’re having those conversations all over again.

Ben Aston:

Yeah. I mean, so much of this is about communication and creating alignment and we manage stakeholders by creating alignment and through clear communication. And there are some tools that we can use to help us do that. And in your posts, you talk about stakeholder maps, RACI Charts, comms plans, client surveys. What have you found to be the most important in creating alignment kind of opening up the channels of communication so that you’ve got real clarity on goals and objectives and then the way forward?

Kelly Suter:

Right. So I would say the RACI Matrix is one of the most helpful tools because to me it is the most straightforward way to kind of put data points on what feels like something that’s ambiguous. So when I say that I mean that with the RACI Matrix you have the project tasks or milestones or deliverables listed out and then down the columns, you have each of the team members, whether it’s on your side or the client side.

And you are assigning responsibility, accountability and who’s informed and who’s consulted on each of those items. And so it’s putting a more clear picture around each of the project tasks for in my opinion, what is the most important, who’s responsible. There’s only one person who can be responsible for something. And I should say one to two people, maybe but largely, I like to keep it to one person who is responsible for a task and those who are accountable to it.

I think first being responsible, who’s delivering it, who’s accountable, who has input with it, who might weigh in on the deliverable and then who’s consulted, who needs to review it, right? And then who’s informed, who’s just being let known that this is happening. And for those of you who are listening, driving or walking or during lunch, it’s kind of hard to picture without seeing the chart. But if you boil it down, it’s really just assigning a responsible person to each of these tasks. And then also knowing for each of those who is accountable for helping out with it, who is being consulted on it for review and who is being informed that it’s happening. Because if everyone’s responsible, no one’s responsible. And that’s how things fall through the cracks. And that’s how gaps are made.

And having this chart may seem a little tedious but you only have to do it once and you only have to revisit it if a team member falls off or a team member is added on, on either side. But you can have this in a shared space with your client to reference when looking at each of the tasks so that it’s very clear for the client and for your team who’s responsible, who needs to step up to the plate for this so that there’s accountability, which I do believe accountability drives performance.

So I think the RACI Matrix is really helpful. The stakeholder map to me is a little bit more wishy-washy, but it’s helpful to visualize because you have the two, the interests of the stake holder on one side and the influence of the stakeholder on another, and I won’t get into too much detail about this, but it’s pretty much charting out the stakeholder involvement for each of the stakeholder team members. And so where they fall in this map just shows how much contact or how informed they are, how they need to be managed and then anticipating and meeting their needs. So again, it’s hard to verbally talk through, but this is a chart that’s a visual aid to both teams just to understand involvement.

Ben Aston:

Yeah, and I think alongside that, I think from my perspective, I think in terms of thinking about how we manage stakeholders and that there’s one thing to create a RACI chart and one of the things that you talk about is the comms plan. And we’ve got a great post on this. Go and search for communications plan on the DigitalProjectManager.com and I think the communications plan is really important to go alongside the RACI because it says, “Okay Mr. Executive, I’m going to give you an update once a month. And in that update I’m going to tell you where we’re at with the budget. I am going to give you a two sentence summary on where the project is at and I’m going to do that by email.” And for each different stakeholder in the project it kind of clarifies who gets to know what and be informed on different things or what meetings you’re going to have, how you’re going to have those meetings.

And it really just baselines I guess that’s how you’re going to manage the stakeholders right at the beginning and clarifies it to everyone. So there’s no surprises because I think that some of the difficulties in managing stakeholders arise when as you’re talking about, people say, “Well hold on, I thought I was going to be consulted at this part of the project,” and you were now in a meeting and this apparently something, the person who was accountable signed this off and now it’s too late. I should have been … we need to change, we need to pivot. And you know, that’s when you run into problems. So I think having a really clear communications plan to go alongside that RACI that says, “Hey, this is how we’re going to communicate, when we can communicate and the format that it’s going to take.” Getting clarity on that can really help oil the wheels of the project.

Kelly Suter:

Yes, I absolutely agree. And I think the key thing you said in there was the no surprises because where you can lessen that Delta between client expectation, reality is where success happens. So no surprises is really the key of these charts.

Ben Aston:

Yeah. And let’s talk about when and how it all falls apart. So let’s take holder management. What we’re trying to do, we’re trying to keep everyone informed, which we’re trying to, as you talked about, reduce that Delta between client’s expectation and reality. But yeah, where do you see it all going wrong in your projects? Where has it all fallen apart? And how can we stop that happening?

Kelly Suter:

Yes. I think the most consistent challenge I’ve seen, no matter which team I’ve been on, which company I’ve worked for, it is communication. And I think as a project manager we have to be smart about how we are scheduling our meetings or conversations or reviews and deliverable presentations and what have you and we have to be careful about budget and not including everybody on everything so that people do have heads down time to produce what they’re producing. But at the same time being mindful of who needs to be in conversation so that things do not fall through the cracks because when I am in a busy place as a project manager, I very easily start saying to the technical team, “Hey, can you have this conversation with their tech person and just let me know what comes out of it. Okay, great. Go for it.” And then turning to the creative people and saying, “Okay, this feedback came from the client and they want this, this and this. Can you just turn this around and email them? Copy me. Great, thanks. I’m going to go back to doing the other 20 things I was doing.”

And what happens here is that conversations start going off and as soon as maybe that creative person reaches back out to the client, gives them what they need and another conversation, branches off, maybe I’m not copied on the response. And then suddenly you find out that there’s a portfolio page that exists out of scope that you never … before. And with the tech people, there’s a big integration that got talked about. So when other conversations fork off, and maybe there’s not one source of truth, so the conversation’s happening, but at the same time there’s no place that people know to look or to document everything.

Maybe you don’t have something like SharePoint or Basecamp or Google Suite that helps you organize everything. That is when things start falling apart quite literally. I mean, because scope is blowing up, promises were made and now you have to retroactively try to gather everything up and organize it and get it back in one shared space.

So what is the answer to that? I think it is being smart about the checks and balances and the touch points and the stand ups … and who’s involved. With my large project right now where I have a number of stakeholders. I do make certain that myself and then the one point person on the client side who is my main point, we talk every day. We summarize any other conversations each of us have had that have been scheduled and it’s just a constant checkpoint to make sure that we’re all on the same page.

Ben Aston:

Yeah, yeah. I think those ongoing conversations are so important and documenting the conversations as well, so having … rather than just having a chat and I think it’s great to chat on the phone, but just to follow up with an email afterwards and say, “Hey, person I just spoke too, great to chat. Here’s what we discussed and here’s what we agreed. I’m copying in whoever X, Y and Z as well just because I want to keep them in the loop with what’s going on.” But then not just broadcasting it. Then making sure you loop back round with X, Y, and Z to say, “Hey, just wanted to make sure you saw that email I wrote where we said we’re going to go in a totally different direction and it was approved by this person. Are you okay with that? Just wanted to check.”

And I think the more that we can like … I think really the art of project management lies in our ability to communicate and create alignment. But I think also what I’m a big advocate for is the PM providing a leadership role in all this, not just sitting back and letting these conversations happen around us, but really being like the hub of the projects and understanding what’s going on.

Yes, empowering our team to make decisions and have conversations. But we need to know where it’s going and we need to have the vision and the leadership to keep … to provide that vision for the team so that we can make good decisions and then create alignment around that. But for those people who are half listening in the car, what is one simple takeaway do you think for us all on stakeholder management that we can all remember? What would your single most important lesson be?

Kelly Suter:

I would say my single most important lesson would be, and I’ll echo my thought from earlier, is to just pause and consider the perspective of the client when you’re frustrated, which it’s really hard for any of us to pause when we’re frustrated in anything. But before you react and before you escalate and before you start an alliance with your project team against the client, just think for a second and remind yourself what this project is to the client, maybe why they’re frustrated.

Practice a little bit of that empathy that is hard to make time for and is important as a tool to sharpen because every stakeholder that we have are there for a reason, right? They obtain that role for a reason. Whether it was because there was not enough capacity on the client’s end that they just threw it to a marketing coordinator to handle or because got promoted into a role, but regardless, they know a little bit more about that company or organization than you do and they do have something to offer. It just might take a little bit of fine tuning to figure out how to best communicate and collaborate with them.

Ben Aston:

Yeah, good stuff. Yeah, and I like that sentiment of, yeah, that empathy is so important as is the ability to be humble enough to understand that we can learn something from everyone. And even though we might be working with a marketing coordinator who doesn’t really know what they’re doing, hey, they’re the representative of the company. I’m sure that there’s something that they can teach us and that we can learn from as well. So Kelly, thank you so much for joining us today. It’s been great having you with us.

Kelly Suter:

Thank you so much. I enjoyed it.

Ben Aston:

So I wonder what you think. What kinds of clients and stakeholders do you manage? What are they like? What kind do you love and who do you hate and why is that? Tell us what you think. Comment on this post and head to the DigitalProjectManager.com to join our Slack team and you’ll find all kinds of interesting conversations going on about that, all about project delivery and you can join our Slack team as part of our membership which we’re just launching.

So check that out at the DigitalProjectManager.com and if you like what you heard today, please subscribe and take a couple of minutes just to leave an honest review for the DPM podcast on Apple podcasts. We love fans, we’ve got two fans, we’ve got two five star ratings, so please don’t ruin it and add a third. That’d be great. But until next time, thanks for listening.

Ben Aston

Ben Aston

I’m Ben Aston, a digital project manager. I've been in the industry for more than 10 years working in the UK at London’s top digital agencies including Dare, Wunderman, Lowe and DDB. I’ve delivered everything from video virals to CMS’, flash games to banner ads and eCRM to eCommerce sites. I’ve been fortunate enough to work across a wide range of great clients; automotive brands including Land Rover, Volkswagen and Honda; Utility brands including BT, British Gas and Exxon, FMCG brands such as Unilever, and consumer electronics brands including Sony.

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