Projects involve a lot of people and for the project manager, getting them to listen and understand what is happening on the project can be a challenge. We speak to many project managers who say that they have worked with stakeholders who “don’t listen”. It can be very frustrating to go into a meeting and have someone else in the room say that your proposal was never agreed, when you know that it was. It’s also annoying to have to repeat yourself when you know that you’ve discussed an issue with them, and yet when you next mention it, they act as if they haven’t heard it before.
However difficult these situations can be, it is the project manager’s responsibility to get the message across, and make sure that it is understood and acted on as appropriate.
Here are our top five tips for dealing with stakeholders who don’t listen, or who don’t retain the information you share with them.
1. Use formal meeting minutes
A paper trail is your friend. Take and circulate minutes for all but the most informal of discussions. You can drop a few notes in an email as a record of the conversation as a minimum. At the more formal end of the scale, use a standard template for preparing your minutes, documenting each action so that it can be transferred to your action log and followed up with the action owner at a later date.
Make a special effort to record minutes if there is a vendor or other third party present, so that all groups have an accurate record of what was discussed and – more importantly – what was agreed.
If you use a document management system or project wiki, the minutes can be uploaded to this and will therefore be available in a central repository for everyone to refer to.
2. Use the right delivery mechanism
Don’t expect your stakeholders to remember a conversation in the kitchen while you are getting coffee, or a passing word in the corridor on the way to another meeting. If your message is important, communicate it in a way that reflects that. Schedule a meeting, produce a briefing paper or bring it up at the project board meeting.
If it is a general update that requires no action and is for information only, a chat by the water cooler is adequate.
3. Understand their preferences
Different people like to receive communication in different ways. While some managers work on an open door policy, others prefer that you schedule time with their assistant. Some managers won’t read email but will be perfectly pleasant and attentive on the phone, others prefer to have everything in writing, however trivial. Some like lots of detail, others just want a bulleted list of facts. You have probably worked with people who fit into all these groups.
Match the format of your message to their style if you can. Communicating in several formats can help you cover all the bases.
4. Make it clear what you want from them
Project managers often provide stakeholders with status updates that are predominately for information and to illustrate progress. These may include information, statistics or screenshots from your enterprise project management tools. However, the role of the project manager is also to provide information for decision making purposes. If you need something from your stakeholder, make it clear. If you expect any action as a result of your communication, explain what action is required. Make a note to chase them up if they haven’t carried out the action or made a decision by a certain date.
5. Repeat yourself
Yes, you may have to repeat yourself, however frustrating that is. It is likely that your stakeholder has multiple projects on the go. They can’t be expected to hold all the information about all their projects in their head at any one time. At least, it might take a little while to dredge that information from the recesses of their mind when you put them on the spot in the office lobby.
Repeating yourself is an annoyance, but if it gets what you need at the end of the day, it is worth it. Get over the inconvenience!
Accepting that sometimes stakeholders will need a couple of attempts at hearing your message, potentially through a couple of different channels, is 80% of the work required to ensure those stakeholders listen to the message – eventually!
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