For those who work on projects, especially the kind that are big and costly, complex and ill defined, and long in duration, they know that even with the best project management, success can be elusive. This is because there are many factors outside the control of project managers or even the organization. Chinese has an old saying that translates to “planning is for the mortals, success is in the hands of gods”.

But good plans matter as they provide fighting chances to achieve triumph. So can we, the mere mortals, start the planning process?  Projects can be fuzzy in the early stages. Questions of “why” (e.g., why are we doing this? why is this requirement important? why are we applying this method or process?) and “what” (e.g., what is the scope? what are the priorities? what is the budget or resources available?) dominate initial discussions.  While “whys” and “whats” are all excellent starting for some projects, I have recommended project managers start with “who”.

 All projects are done by people and for people. Even projects that have no immediate human benefits, such as saving animals, are implemented and sponsored by people. Identifying and working with the right people are the utmost important for project success. After all, who is going to address the questions of “whys” and “whats”?  It is primarily the sponsor and customers who can describe the requirements and sign-off on the scope. It is also them who can help projects prioritize the needs and wants, develop the schedule, and apply a particular project management method in the implementation. Even though technologies such as artificial intelligence can perform some of the work, it is people who make difficult tradeoff decisions and sooth hurt feelings after disagreements and conflicts.  In project management, this is the domain of stakeholder management.

Understanding stakeholders and engaging them effectively is a fundamental aspect of good project management that contributes heavily to the success of any project. Here are the top ten reasons why stakeholder management is so crucial:

  1. Making Decisions: Stakeholders, especially those in the position of power and influence, play a vital role in making the important decisions for the projects. Whether the decisions are related to funding or resources, it is important for project managers to work with them collaboratively.
  2. Providing Guidance: Very few projects, even the smaller projects, have zero surprises. Larger and complex projects are full of unknowns and changes, a phenomenon that I called “Murphy’s Law on steroids”. In addition to the traditional Murphy’s Law in which “anything that can go wrong will go wrong”, complex projects often have the added problem in which “things that cannot go wrong may also go wrong.” Thus, it’s vitally important to engage stakeholders and ask them for guidance.
  3. Managing expectation. As a follow-up to the above, projects are rarely straightforward, and changes are inevitable. As projects take detours and regroups, project managers need to work closely with stakeholders, navigate these changes, and reset expectations to maintain and hopefully gain more support.
  4. Defining Scope: Key stakeholders, such as customers and sponsors, are the people who provide the vision, establish requirements, and prioritize them. In addition, by asking the stakeholders of their goals, projects can more astutely and accurately define the right outcomes early in the project. One of the worst mistake project managers can make is that after spending all the resources and sweat, the customers or users fail to adopt it. In short, while the project may be technically done, but practically, it was a complete waste of time and resources.
  5. Championing Change: Inherently, most people rarely like change, especially in strategic and transformative projects where change can be substantial. Project managers should strive to understand the changes and their impact on stakeholders, address their concerns, and ideally find and nurture change champions to ease resistance and achieve greater adoption.
  6. Tackling risk: Projects are surrounded by uncertainties, from the known unknowns such as the uncertainties of securing employee support from previous similar projects to unknown unknowns in which the project managers have no visibility. But by effectively working with stakeholders, project team can gain insights into potential challenges and obstacles earlier, allowing better risk identification, assessment, and management.
  7. Allocating resources: Let’s face the reality, other than the tiny or very well-defined projects, project managers are often just guessing at the resources that are required. This is especially true for strategic projects in which there are little precedents. By working with stakeholders well, project managers are more likely able to secure the right funding, talent, equipment, and other requirements necessary for the project.
  8. Resolving conflicts: Project disagreements are common, and when they are not dealt with early and effectively, then can spiral into conflicts. For experienced project professionals, conflicts of priority, differences over processes, and personality clashes are all too commonplace. But by understanding the perspectives and concerns of various stakeholders, project managers can identify those troubled areas early and lessen conflicts. And even when conflicts flare up, they can be more effectively addressed and resolved.
  9. Developing teams: Every project manager dreams of creating a high-performance team. Yet, chances are, there are only a few examples of such teams. One way to develop such a team is to truly understand the motivation behind the core team members and structure their roles accordingly. When this is wisely done, these stakeholders are likely to be more productive, motivated by common goals, and supported by trust.
  10. Building trust: Perhaps the most important reason to pay special attention to “who” is to enable the building trust. By regularly engaging with and understanding people’s interests and goals, project managers can foster trust. Trust can be invaluable, especially when dealing with risks and challenges. 

Working with people is unavoidable, and thus project professionals have two choices: managing them proactively and reap rewards throughout the project or neglecting them and live with pains at every juncture.  Which path will you take?  

Want to learn more, join our next PowerUp Your Productivity Workshop about Stakeholder Management on September 19, 2023.  Click here for more information and registration.  The PowerUp series is a low-cost professional development series designed for all professionals, not just project managers. 

Dr. Te Wu

Dr. Te Wu


Prof. Dr. Te Wu is the CEO of PMO Advisory and an Associate Professor at Montclair State University. Te is certified in Portfolio, Program, Project, and Risk Management. He is an active volunteer including serving as the chair of PMI’s Portfolio Management Standard Committee. He previously worked on various standards including portfolio management, risk management and program management for PMI and ISO. As a practitioner, executive, teacher, writer, and speaker, Dr. Wu enjoys sharing his knowledge and experiences and networking with other professionals.