Best Practices

A Project Manager’s Guide to Negotiating Stakeholder Priorities Like a Pro

The role of a project manager is a tough one. Between balancing schedules, deadlines, compliance and budgets, you’re constantly being forced to shift and adapt to avoid obstacles along the way. But one of the hardest parts of the job is undeniably managing stakeholders and their priorities.

Most of the time, the bigger the project, the more stakeholders involved. This can be a major challenge when each stakeholder has a different agenda and definition of success.

So how do you keep the project moving and keep everyone happy? Well, there is no silver bullet here, unfortunately. But we’ve come up with a set of guidelines that can help you manage stakeholder priorities and mitigate conflict.

Identify Key Stakeholders

This may sound obvious, but a huge source of conflict can arise if all stakeholders aren’t identified and looped in from the very beginning. All the legwork that happens prior to a project will have to be redone if new stakeholders pop up along the way. This can mean pushed deadlines, budget increases and generally unhappy stakeholders. Make sure that you’ve identified, and communicated with, everyone who may have a dog in the fight early in the process.

If there are many stakeholders in a project, it’s often beneficial to identify high-priority and secondary stakeholders. Naturally, those who are high priority will hold more weight and have more pull than secondary stakeholders.

Remember, not all stakeholders will be directly involved in the work. There may be others who are directly impacted by the project and its outcome. And those people need to be involved, too.

Identify Priorities and Potential Conflicts

Having a kick-off meeting is a great way to identify the different interests, priorities and perspectives of each stakeholder.

If all goes well, each stakeholder will have similar goals and priorities and the project can move forward with perfect alignment. The reality is, though, that there will likely be a variety of perspectives and wish lists, and they may be competing.

Should this happen, a good way to start prioritizing interests is by asking each stakeholder, “How does this support our business objective and company goals?” If the answer is that it doesn’t, or that it can’t be clearly tied to a business objective, it falls towards the bottom of the list of priorities.

Having these conversations early in the process helps us avoid future conflict and uncertainty about the project, and gives us a better shot at completing the project successfully and on time.

Mitigate Conflicts as they Arise

Understanding and addressing stakeholders’ needs and concerns early in the process decreases the likelihood of problems arising further down the line.

However, things happen. Priorities shift. Budget gets slashed. What’s the best way to deal with it? This is where your interpersonal skills make their debut for effective conflict resolution.

Many conflicts can be simply handled by clear communication and a review of the goals and priorities set forth in the planning phases of the project. Re-aligning goals and commitments is often enough to mitigate a conflict, especially when they’ve been clearly defined and documented.

As a project manager, you’re often able to block and tackle to prevent conflicts from arising. Managing expectations is a big part of the job, and your communication skills can be the difference between success and failure.

For example, when something related to the project inevitably changes (like budget or resources) or you run into unanticipated problems, be upfront and clear as soon as you know that things have shifted.

It may be tough to deliver news of setbacks to stakeholders, but having these conversations and realigning commitments with everyone involved is the best way to avoid friction and frustrations.

Want to learn more about being a pro at project management? Check out our eBook “Project Management Best Practicesfor 21 tips on taking the pain out of project management.