How to secure 360 stakeholder buy-in and sustain it?


President and CEO, BRISK Business Inc.


Across all industries, organization types, and project sizes, success or failure is largely dependent on having the right levels of team commitment, stakeholder buy-in, and executive support. Without these key components project managers often struggle to meet objectives. Even when the scientific elements of project management are thoroughly developed and applied, the risk of project failure is imminent if 360° Stakeholder Buy-in is inadequate, or fluctuates throughout the project. In this paper, the author addresses battle-tested techniques for securing and sustaining buy-in from all stakeholders on your project or program.

Introduction and Background

Project management is often very rightly called both a science and an art. The reasons behind that being that a successful project cannot deliver all of its intended objectives without the application of scientific knowledge and tools and techniques addressed in the Project Management Institute's A Guide to The Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK®) – Fifth Edition, as well as the use of softer, more unscientific skills such as the interpersonal skills embodied in general management. The body of knowledge for the latter is extensive, and cannot be encapsulated in a specific reference/standard such as the PMBOK® Guide. The need for this combination of science and art is because projects rely on people. Projects are not as straightforward as running code on a computer, for example. Research and previous experience have shown that If a project manager were to run all of the tools and techniques in the PMBOK® Guide on a project without the use of the artful “soft” skills of general management, their chances of success in delivering their project scope on time, on budget, and as per the desired quality standards are slim. This is further confirmed in the PMBOK® Guide, which states: “Project managers accomplish work through the project team and other stakeholders. Effective project managers require a balance of ethical, interpersonal, and conceptual skills that help them analyze situations and interact appropriately” (PMI, 2012a, p. 17). However, if by contrast, another project manager were to apply both the art of management and the tools, techniques and scientific knowledge, their chances of success are significantly increased.

This paper addresses one key element of the art of project management, that although supported by scientific tools and techniques, falls mainly into the category of “art”—stakeholder management. A manifestation of the importance of stakeholder management is evident in PMI's addition of a tenth Knowledge Area in the latest edition of the PMBOK® Guide on the subject, as opposed to mentioning stakeholder management as a subset of other Knowledge Areas in its preceding four editions. This paper does not explain the content of that chapter/Knowledge Area in the PMBOK® Guide, but rather builds on the knowledge and methods addressed therein in an attempt to further the understanding of the reader. The prime focus of this paper is to seek means of securing and sustaining stakeholder buy-in throughout a project, thereby increasing chances of success. Readers of this paper are encouraged to first read the Stakeholder Management Knowledge Area chapter (Chapter 13) of A Guide to The Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK®) – Fifth Edition to maximize outcome and gain from this paper.

The paper addresses the significance of stakeholder buy-in to the project and business as well as the causes and effects of the lack of stakeholder buy-in, segregating stakeholders into tiers. It touches on psychological factors associated with commitment, buy-in, and support. For instance, research conducted by the author's organization indicates that projects are more likely to be perceived as failures toward the midpoint of the execution phase, and that has a drastic impact on stakeholders, which cyclically can impact future phases of the project.

The author argues that buy-in is dynamic, just as the project is progressively elaborated, and that stakeholder support and commitment may recede to the extent of negatively affecting the project. The savvy project manager should be capable of monitoring such fluctuations, ensuring that adversity is avoided and commitment, buy-in, and support are sustained, even when the project looks like — or is — a total failure.

How to Identify Low Stakeholder Buy-in on a Project

PMI, as well as various consulting and research firms, have conducted multiple research studies over the years on project success or failure and the causes behind such outcomes. Unrealistic assumptions, flawed or skewed estimates, unidentified risks, hidden issues, unannounced or poorly managed dependencies, significant variances from baselines, corrective action that is not adopted in part or in full, lack of executive sponsor support, lack of client acceptance and support, as well as many other reasons have been identified as the culprits behind project failure. It is arguable that underlying all of the above reasons is the lack of stakeholder buy-in either while planning or executing the project.

The simplest defense of the above argument is that should there be sufficient buy-in from all stakeholders, 360° around the project, and this way causes of failure would be avoided and reduced either by acts of prevention (for instance the provision of solid, accurate, realistic estimates based on historical performance as a result of team-member buy-in) or by acts of remedy through stakeholder intervention to correct projects that go astray from their intended baselines during execution.

But Who Needs Buy-In? We've Done The Same Project Before!

More often than not, project managers fall into the trap of underestimating the importance of buy-in, or assuming that buy-in comes automatically with the knowledge the organization has accumulated having successfully conducted similar — or identical — projects in the past. The same applies to most, if not all members of the team, and oftentimes executives. This syndrome can have detrimental impacts on projects on two dimensions:

  1.   Stakeholders may not have the same version of ‘success’ from previous projects, or may have been negatively impacted in one or more ways by their delivery.
  2.   Stakeholders who ‘rest on their laurels’ because of a successful precedent may soon realize that their over confidence in the project is in fact the reason for failure, putting this in the context of stakeholder buy-in, project managers oftentimes belittle the importance of obtaining and sustaining stakeholder buy-in as a result of their previous success.

As mentioned earlier, lack of buy-in on a project can have a detrimental impact on a project from the very early stages. We call this “project management off the side of your desk.” An erroneous or poorly estimated project charter (if there is one for the project at all) can result in severe shortcomings on baseline estimates and/or requirements. The same applies throughout the life of the project: inaccurate estimates during planning, execution that is alien to the plan, and poor project management practice are all signs of the lack of buy-in.

Project Stakeholder Types

Before looking into securing stakeholder buy-in, it is important to establish a unified understanding of who project stakeholders are and what they expect from projects, whereby accordingly engagement and management tactics will be defined and set. In the fifth edition of the PMBOK® Guide, PMI defines project stakeholders as “People, groups, or organizations that could impact or be impacted by the project” (PMI, 2012a, p. 391). While this is a very comprehensive definition, a deeper analysis may prove useful to practitioners, bringing often-overlooked stakeholders to the forefront:

“Could Impact The Project:” refers to people, groups, or organizations that could affect a project positively or negatively, positively to the extent of success and negatively to the extent of premature termination. Examples of such groups can be identified from the cases below:

The residents of an area who are not willing to host the multi-story car park you are trying to build there because they object to the impact it will have on the area. They do not accept the potential noise and air pollution the garage could cause, and are concerned that it will attract heavier traffic to their quite residential neighborhood, bringing with it unwanted visitors. The city council, however, sees the importance of the garage. It will serve users of the nearby train station, and will facilitate access to the city center and thereby increase economic activity, which will ultimately have a beneficial impact on the residents. Both the residents and the city council are important stakeholders that can impact the project. In fact, both entities have power over your project.

In a similar case, poor management of buy-in of the residents of an area resulted in a project to build a whole factory being cancelled, despite obvious immediate economic return for the residents. Activities to obstruct the construction site were as dramatic as sleeping out on the site to impede excavators from accessing it, and full-fledged protests went on for days until the project was cancelled. In this particular case, the residents of that impoverished area in North Africa thought the investors in the factory were not giving them enough in return for hosting the factory in their area. This came despite employment contracts that were handed out before the factory was ever built. A local farmer who was running for parliamentary elections kept fueling the angry crowds and increasing their expectations from the owners of the factory, just to demonstrate to them that he is keener on their benefit and well-being than the owners. He succeeded. What is more is that the city council and all levels of government were highly supportive of the factory, as it was part of a major foreign direct investment program. The parliamentary candidate simply hijacked the thoughts of one stakeholder group before the program manager involved could manage them.

Before dismissing the above as only applicable to major projects or programs, it is highly scalable to smaller, less complex ones. Let's consider an example where a project manager is trying to install a new piece of software in her client's coffee shop. The software will simply calculate optimal stock levels of raw material based on consumption and seasonality. If the coffee shop staff does not believe that the software will do them any good — or if they believe that it will actually harm them or jeopardize their jobs — then they would definitely not contribute to its success, if not to its failure.

One final example in this category can be a regulatory authority that needs to issue permits for a certain project. While that regulatory authority has no interest in whether the project is seen through or not, it does have the power over the project, by issuing the permit or lack thereof, and by revoking it or not giving the project the final sign-off if there is a gated process the project needs to go through.

“Could Be Impacted By The Project:” these are people, organizations, or groups whose lives will, or may be changed as a result of the project and/or its outcome, for better or for worse. This category of stakeholders also includes those who perceive that the project might have an impact on their lives although such perception might not be true.

In the examples above, the concerns of the residents of the neighborhood where you are building the garage may be completely untrue or irrelevant; nevertheless, they are considered a stakeholder and their buy-in is vital to the project's success. They simply might not see the value in the garage, or might think that the cons outweigh the pros, but they are impacted by the project, thereby falling into both categories. In the case of the coffee shop, the staff definitely falls into this category because their work will be impacted by the project, however, it may be that the customers of the coffee shop who might experience an interruption in service while the new piece of software is being installed on the point of sale are a stakeholder group that will be affected by the project. In the case of the factory in North Africa, the residents of the area are clearly stakeholders who have already been impacted positively by the project (they received employment contracts) but perceived the factory as damaging to their environment and well-being as advocated by the local farmer who was running for parliament.

The simplest example that can be given to help identify this category is the passerby on a busy street bordering a construction site. Debris from the site could fall onto his or her car or head and cause serious damage; that group of stakeholders needs to be managed by the project manager with adequate signage demonstrating the danger zone and relieving all parties responsible for the site from any responsibility.

Stakeholder Categorization Is Not Mutually Exclusive:

The above segregation is not mutually exclusive. A common oversight is that the above segregation of “could impact” or “or could be impacted by” the project is discrete, meaning that a stakeholder who falls into one category can fall into the other, and/or constant meaning that the stakeholder that falls into one group cannot move into the other. The reality is that stakeholders can fall into any of the three combinations of categories below and can migrate from one to any of the other two at any point in the project/program. A savvy manager and management team would work with stakeholders to ‘keep’ them in the category that would serve the best interest of the project the most:

  1.   Those who impact the project but are not impacted by it;
  2.   Those who are impacted by the project but have no impact on it; and
  3.   Those who both impact and are impacted by the project.

For explanatory purposes, Exhibit 1 demonstrates migration between different stakeholder categories using the example of a cooperative housing project:

Stakeholder migration between categories

Exhibit 1: Stakeholder migration between categories.

In the example above, the members of the cooperative who are disgruntled by the fact that the delivery of their units has overrun target dates have changed from being passive to taking a more active role. Such a role may be positive, whereby they work with the project management team on resolving issues that have resulted in the delays and are doing the best they can to bring it back on track, even voluntarily and without compensation for their time and effort, or negative, whereby they take a hostile stance against the project manager and team that may amount to termination of their contract or even legal action demanding hefty compensation.

Who Are Project Stakeholders?

Having established the above categorization of stakeholders, it is important to recognize the following breakdown of stakeholder tiers. This breakdown is aligned with PMI's example (Exhibit 2) of the relationship between projects and stakeholders.

The relationship between stakeholders and the project (PMI, 2012a, p. 31)

Exhibit 2: The relationship between stakeholders and the project (PMI, 2012a, p. 31).

Executive Stakeholders

Executive stakeholders come from both the performing and client organizations. Examples of each type of organization are if a contractor is building a new shop for a restaurant chain, the contractor company is the “Performing Organization” and the Restaurant Chain is the “Client Organization.”

Projects are also performed internally, within the same organization. There will always be a Performing Organization and Client Organization, for example, if an IT department in a bank is upgrading the computers of the Human Resource department, the IT department is the Performing Organization and the Human Resource Department is the Client Organization. This category of stakeholders includes the leaders, heads, and decision makers of both organizations.

The executives of both organizations have obvious interest in the project, as well as the ability to influence it either positively or negatively. Typically, the Performing Organization would want to deliver the project and derive the obvious benefits of achievement, financial return, and a satisfied customer, and the Client Organization would want to receive the end product of the project to realize the anticipated benefits. The restaurant chain would want to see the revenues and profits coming in from the new shop. Similarly, the Human Resources department of the organization would want to get more work done with their faster, more modern computer system.

In both cases (as synonymous of all other projects), executives in both organizations can impact the project by giving it support, taking decisions as needed, removing obstacles as relevant, providing resources, and advocating for the end result. But in order to do so, the project manager needs to secure and maintain their appropriate level of buy-in. If the project manager does not achieve this, executives from both organizations could have an adverse impact on the project, simply by not supporting it if they think it is too insignificant, or by opposing it if they do not believe the outcome is achievable or beneficial enough, to the extent of shutting it down.

Executive Support As A Recurring Blame For Failure — Why We Project Managers Love It!

All project managers work for executives. Even a self-employed contractor who is replacing a light bulb for a tenant of an apartment — that tenant is the executive, because he or she is the ‘highest authority’ on that miniscule project. The lack of executive support is known to be one of the most prominent issues that plague projects. How project managers deal with it varies considerably, and the motion put forth is not in any way a generalization: our engagements have revealed that the less experienced the project managers, the more passive they become to the lack of executive support and buy-in from both the client and the performing organizations. In many cases this passiveness extends to using the lack of executive support as the scapegoat for failure.

Unlike experienced project managers, some junior ones tend to operate with the “us versus them” mentality. They self-alienate the project management team against the client, the executives of their organization, or both. In more severe cases this alienation has gone as far as those performing the work. This has a detrimental impact on the project, whereas instead of managing stakeholders for the benefit of the project and the organizations involved, they tend to simply react to what executives do, or don't do, not realizing that it is primarily their responsibility as the project manager (being the captain of the ship) to ensure all elements of success are in place for the project.

Many scholars and practitioners argue with this point. Some believe that project managers cannot be held responsible for the success of a project and that project sponsors and program managers are the ones who should be. Since this is not the prime argument of this paper, this topic will not be addressed in depth, however, the position of the author is that the project manager is responsible for notifying the sponsor (and all relevant executives) when resources need to be allocated to the project, or when a project is challenged by factors not in the span of control of the project manager. The project manager is also responsible for overseeing that the sponsor and/or relevant executive stakeholders avail the needed resources and overcome the challenges escalated, providing the necessary elements of success.

As the project progresses, and as issues hindering the achievement of project progress accumulate, the impact of such passiveness by the project manager has both snowball and domino effects. Passiveness accumulates and impacts the rest of the project management team, and the results become too complex and intertwined to manage without compromising on the attention, time, and effort needed to deliver and manage the project.

Failure can always be attributed to the executives, and the project manager and team are of the position: “if the executives don't care about their project, why should we?” without an ounce of guilt or blame.

Project Team Members

In many of our engagements, especially when asked to rescue a troubled project by one of our clients, we are surprised to discover that this stakeholder group is often overseen or forgotten when it comes to securing and maintaining buy-in, while, in many cases, they may have the highest level of influence (but not necessarily the highest level of interest) in a project.

During the his opening keynote at Project Management Institute's 2012 Leadership Institute Meeting, Mark A. Langley, PMI President and CEO, advised all project leaders to “listen to the people closest to the work.” This is a fundamental aspect of stakeholder buy-in. Who would better know how long it would take to load a 20-foot shipping container than the fork-lift operator who does that task for eight hours every day of his or her life? Definitely not the owner of the shipping company or those in administrative roles. Furthermore, who is the best person to consult on the actual cost of a piece of hardware? The project cost controller of the most recent similar project or the financial analyst of the organization?

Both the project management team and the delivery team are very important stakeholders; their buy-in is of extreme importance to the success of the project. While the nomenclature of these teams may mean different things in different contexts, they are simply the team that manages the project and/or performs project management activities and the team that does the actual work on the project. Securing buy-in of every member on each of those teams is critical to success. Apathetic team members mean non-delivery.

Environmental Stakeholders

This is the largest group of stakeholders, and in many cases the most difficult to comprehensively identify, manage and secure buy-in from. The reason being simply that the groups, organizations, and people of this category can be vast and sporadic. For example, if you were the project manager looking after the development of a new line of laptop for a major brand, Exhibit 3 presents only some of who might be your environmental stakeholders.

Sample list of environmental stakeholders for a new laptop development project

Exhibit 3: Sample list of environmental stakeholders for a new laptop development project.

Using the Exhibit 3 as a stimulant for thought, you might think of more stakeholder groups to add to these lists, as well as new lists altogether. Some questions that come to mind are: “What about the regulators? Those who specify standards for electromagnetic fields and connectivity waves?” Also, consider anyone of the stakeholders listed above. If their buy-in is not secured, the whole project could fail. Can you deliver a new line of laptops without the proper hard disk or chipset? Similarly, what if your customers do not believe in your product? Would they buy or use it? While the latter analogies seem to be direct and straightforward, some are more daunting: if the size, dimensions, or weight of the packaging are not conventional and efficient, freight forwarders are likely to charge higher for shipping, a reason why customers might opt not to buy the laptop.

Securing and Maintaining Stakeholder Buy-in

Despite its perceived complexity and difficulty, securing buy-in is fairly simple and straightforward. Give your audience what they want and they will give you back what you want from them, as long as it is commensurate. Hence, the key to securing stakeholder engagement revolves around satisfying stakeholder requirements and managing their expectations. To further illustrate, when managing projects, project managers need to “sell” the project to the project team members, executives, and environmental stakeholders, simply by demonstrating (truthfully of course) that the project will deliver to them what they require from it, or other benefits, many of which they may not be aware of.

Project and program managers may argue that not all stakeholders have requirements, or that the requirements from any project are simply those ‘technical’ requirements compiled through the requirements gathering processes. The counter argument is that all stakeholders have other requirements from any project. Such requirements can be political, financial, and not necessarily explicitly mentioned. In the latter case, a savvy project manager needs to probe his or her stakeholders to ensure that he or she is fully aware of what those stakeholders require or expect from the project. To derive unspoken expectations and requirements, techniques of general management such as interviewing, brainstorming sessions, scenario analysis, informal discussions, as well as others can be used by the project manager.

What Do Executives Really Want?

Projects are undertaken for one or more reasons, including but not limited to profit, cost cutting, compliance, competitive advantage, enhanced customer experience, time to market, socio-economic development, humanitarian relief, and the executives who have taken the decision to initiate the project have most probably done so after becoming acutely aware of the reason behind their decision, as a result of a business case for the project weighing its costs, benefits, and contribution to the organization. Such reasons naturally have a positive impact on the organization and consequently on the executives involved.

More often executives need to establish two fundamental elements of buy-in. These executives are commonly those involved with a project but have not been part of the decision-making process, whereby they still need to fully grasp the benefit and value of the project. The same applies to stakeholders who were part of the decision-making process, who need assurances that the project will be delivered and the anticipated benefits realized:

  1.   Demonstrated Assurance That The Project Management Team Is Capable Of Delivering The Project Objectives. Technical and scientific capability is easy to prove. Certification programs such as PMI's Project Management Professional (PMP)® credential demonstrate a project manager's ability to manage a project based on the standard laid out in the PMBOK® Guide, just as an engineering degree from a reputed and accredited university attests to an engineer's ability to design complex structures. On the other hand, capabilities based on general management are difficult to prove, and executives need to assure themselves that the project manager and project team have the necessary managerial skills to see the project through to successful completion. One of the factors that comes into play in this context is the ‘Halo Effect:’ The most qualified, experienced, and professional engineer in an organization does not make the best manager; on the contrary, he or she could be the exact opposite. Executives need to trust that the team managing the project has the managerial skills and abilities needed for that specific project in the context in which it is being undertaken. This is the responsibility of the project manager; they are the ones that need to demonstrate and prove to executives that they are capable enough to see the project through, often multiple times throughout the project: during different phases of a project or at different stages of the project management life cycle. Project managers and project management teams can prove such capability in their evident management of other stakeholder groups, their expectations, and requirements.
  2.   Demonstrated Assurance That The Project Management Team Is Committed To Delivering The Project Objectives. The other key requirement that executives have of most project management teams is reliability. Executives need to make sure that the project team is willing to manage the project and apply its scientific, technical, and managerial capabilities to the project's activities throughout the life of the project. This commitment and willingness often declines as project issues arise and as the team struggles with variances during execution. Without being reliable, there is no guarantee that a project team can deliver. Such reliability comes from commitment, truthfulness during implementation, ownership, and responsibility to take all necessary action to drive the project to completion as well as take corrective action when needed. One very common trap that project managers and project management teams fall into is what we call the “scattered shop-floor syndrome:”

The scattered shop-floor syndrome can be summarized to a case when the project manager authorizes the execution of multiple work-streams to proceed in tandem, but cannot reach closure on any of them having simply too much going on at the same time. This further leads to loss of control on the simultaneous work-streams and once one or more gets derailed, the project manager diverts their focus to that work-stream, decreasing the amount of attention given to the rest, and interdependencies, and hence the domino effect of a list of failures that require the project manager and project management team to function in fire-fighting mode. Such behavior — among others — decreases executives' confidence that the project manager and project management team are capable of delivering the project successfully.

Once the above have been established with executives who have a vested interest in the project, its outcome, and the impact of that outcome on the organization, the project manager and management team have obtained their buy-in, and with a high probability they will be able to sustain it.

But when executive stakeholders are not part of the decision to undertake the project, or cannot see the direct positive impact it would have on the organization or themselves, what they really need is simply to understand:

  1.   What's In It For The Organization (WIIFO)? Executives may not always see how the project will benefit the organization. The marketing director, for instance, may not fully conceive of the benefit from implementing a new ERP system, and hence “not really buy into it.” But once they understand that the new ERP system will reduce the company's costs and increase profitability, they would be more likely to buy into it, and even support it. Project managers need to go to executives to whom the above criteria apply with answers to similar questions, including but not limited to: How will this project add value to the company? Will it increase revenue? Put us ahead of the competition? Make us compliant with a specific regulation? Open new markets for us? This will secure their buy-in at the onset of a project, and reemphasize as needed throughout the project life cycle.
  2.   What's In It For Me (WIIFM)? Increased buy-in, support, and interest are generated when the product(s) or deliverable(s) of a project are proven to have a direct positive impact on the executive in question. Using the same example as above, if the marketing director was told and convinced that the new ERP system would help her get her work done faster by expediting orders from the procurement department and approvals from the financial controller, she might go as far as volunteering one of her team members (or even herself if she has the time) to assist with implementation. Emphasizing what's in it for the executive both at the onset as well as throughout the life of the project is a proven method of obtaining and securing buy-in. Some projects can result in more direct benefits to the executives than those listed above, for example, direct financial bonus/gain, etc. or even promotion.
Best Practice in Securing and Sustaining Executive Support

The beginning of a project is the easiest, yet most critical time to secure executive stakeholder buy-in. When a project is being evaluated pre-initiation, solid, realistic input to the process on the part of the project manager establishes credibility. Such feedback can contain information like: Can this project be done the way it is being designed/contemplated? Do we have the resources (initially)? Are the boundaries sufficient, prohibitive, or inflated? Are there factors that can impact the project that haven't been considered? Who would be the stakeholders on this project if it were to be initiated?

Because of the constraints executives face on their time, they almost always do not favor a project that would consume too much of their time or require that they reprioritize their tasks and schedules and hence pose a burden on them. The project manager needs to manage the degree, extent, frequency, and depth of involvement as opposed to requiring the executive have a parent–child relationship with the project or program.

As the project progresses into initiation followed by planning, provision of similar information on a more detailed and progressively elaborated basis would continue to prove that a project manager and team possess the vital capability to run the project, especially if the information encompasses both the technical and management knowledge needed for the project. However, some project management teams do so in isolation of the rest of the stakeholders and stakeholder groups, as if in their attempt to demonstrate their technical and scientific capability they completely ‘forgot’ about the rest of the project. This by contrast is similar to a school student eagerly raising his hand as high as he could to demonstrate to his teacher that he has all the right answers. Such behavior on the part of the project manager/team is very common with project managers/teams who have evolved into their roles from a technical background as a result of the ‘Halo Effect’ explained above, with limited managerial experience. What they need to understand is that by doing so they signify shortcomings in the art of management and teamwork, as well as alienate the people closest to the work, those who will actually be the ones performing the work of the project.

What Do Project Teams Really Want?

As mentioned above, the buy-in of project teams can be detrimental to the success or failure of a project, therefore it is imperative for the project manager to secure their buy-in and commitment. When analyzing team member requirements, the same dimensions apply as those of executives, only within different contexts:

  1.   They need to be assured of their own capability and commitment to deliver, as well as that of those around them, including their peers, subordinates, and project manager. This also includes those who are external to the team, such as suppliers and contractors. Nobody wants to work with an incapable or failing team, and nobody wants to expend their efforts in vain. In fact, team members are positively challenged by their peers and coworkers, and the project manager needs to demonstrate the capabilities of team members to each other and maintain a certain level of positive challenge among them.
  2.   They also need to assure themselves that they are in the right hands, that their project manager is someone they can trust, and that he or she will support them when and as needed, changing their leadership style depending on the situation, as explained by Kenneth Blanchard in his book, The One Minute Manager. Further assurances needed are that the project manager will be there for them when the project faces unconventional challenges and will appraise them fairly, emphasizing their contributions to senior management. Project team members, as with team members in other contexts, want to feel valued and respected. A project manager can use various tools to solicit the efforts and contributions of the project team yet make them feel respected and appreciated at all levels; similarly, a project manager needs to identify and deploy methods that emphasize, recognize, highlight, and reward their achievements.
  3.   WIIFO: Project team members need to believe in the value of the return of the project to the organization, and how it would help sustain and advance the organization and its well-being, touching on their sense of belonging, loyalty, and security and that the project and its product(s) and deliverable(s) will place them and their organization in a better position once completed.
  4.   WIIFM: Project team members also need to perceive that the project will have a direct positive impact on them. This again can be in the forms of achievement, reward, promotion, learning and experience, and exposure to senior management and/or the customer.
  5.   Project team members need to feel significant and appreciated. Project plans that are “dictated from above” or developed without the participation of the project team are more likely to fail than those that involve a high level of participation. By creating a “dictated” project plan, the project manager is simply telling the team that their opinion is insignificant, and that they know better than the team about what needs to be done, when, how, and with what resources.

Commonly, project managers might think that the above “goes without saying” or wrongly assume that the project team understands all of the above by default. However, motivating the project team at the onset of the project as well as from time to time during the project life cycle relies heavily on emphasizing all of the above and building an understanding and awareness thereof.

What Do Environmental Stakeholders Really Want?

Although, as mentioned above, this category of stakeholders includes individuals, organizations, and groups that are vast and sparse, their requirements are also fairly simple and straightforward and fall into two main categories:

  1.   Compliance: Most external organizations seek compliance of the project's deliverables with their standards, regulations, or procedures or rules—these are most commonly certification and standardization bodies, regulatory bodies, permit issuing authorities, etc. These are typically the environmental stakeholders that have no interest in the project but can have influence over it.
  2.   Benefit: Other groups either seek benefit (direct or societal) from the product(s) or deliverable(s) of the project or seek to be assured that they will not be harmed in any way by them. These are typically the stakeholders that can be impacted by the project, whether or not they can exercise influence it.

To further clarify, let's look at the environmental stakeholders identified in the beginning of this paper and analyze how the project/program manager could have better managed his or her expectations and secured and maintained his or her buy-in (Exhibit 4)

Examples of means of securing and maintaining environmental stakeholder buy-in

Exhibit 4: Examples of means of securing and maintaining environmental stakeholder buy-in.

A very good example of environmental stakeholder management can be seen in the practice of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) in engaging its largest stakeholder group: the users of the New York City subway system. Many train cars have signs indicating that the MTA is hard at work repairing the tracks of the 7 train after the damage it suffered as a result of Hurricane Sandy, not only that but improving on what was previously in place to enhance the experience of the users of the train lines and bring them better and more reliable services. Another sign announces the number of contracts awarded to small and medium businesses over the past year and the aggregate value of those contracts, creating awareness of the value and positive impact the reparation works have on the community at large and the anticipated benefits to users of their service.

All of the above ‘campaigns’ are the tools and techniques of public relations and marketing, hence general management. They are means of communicating to large groups through what is known as “informative” or “persuasive” campaigns. Informative campaigns are those that tell their audience of specific characteristics, features, or functionalities of a product, and persuasive campaigns are those that solicit the support or participation of their audience.

Securing and Maintaining Stakeholder Buy-in through Project Management Practices

Many of the tools and techniques used in the project management Process Groups of Initiating, Planning, Executing, Monitoring and Controlling, and Closing can be developed by the project manager alone or with the involvement of a limited number of team members. They can better be developed by engaging a large group of stakeholders through active engagement and participation. The latter approach harbors maximum buy-in through:

  1.   Making team members feel valued and that their professional and expert opinions count.
  2.   Establishing trust among all members of the team, as they witness and vouch for each other's contributions, and understand and perceive any interdependencies between their contributions or efforts, as well as have the opportunity to openly discuss and debate project elements.
  3.   Developing a sense of ownership and belonging to the project, especially if such a contribution is manually delivered and not only spoken (i.e., a stakeholder writes an issue or estimate on a card and hangs it on the wall as opposed to saying it verbally or sending it in an email. That way it becomes their own plan rather than a dictated one.
  4.   Shows transparency and the absence of politics in the processes of planning and decision making.
  5.   Bridges gaps between stakeholder groups (e.g., the project team and the customer, or the project team and the environmental stakeholder where relevant) by spreading the sentiment that the work has been performed collectively or through close collaboration and with everyone's consent.

Some examples of such tools and techniques include but are not limited to the following (Exhibit 5):

Stakeholder participation in project management as vehicle for increased buy-in

Exhibit 5: Stakeholder participation in project management as vehicle for increased buy-in.

Another tool that we constantly use when planning and defining projects and that has always proved beneficial in nurturing buy-in is a modified version of the Logical Analysis Framework (LFA), which we call the Participatory Approach to Project Definition (PAPD). The success of the tool is dependent on three main dimensions:

  1.   Attendees: As many stakeholders as possible should attend (or groups be represented in) these sessions. Of course, this is limited to those stakeholders and stakeholder groups that do have an impact on the project and don't disrupt it. Judgment should be passed based on the role of the stakeholder (or stakeholder group) and not their character or personality. The more diverse the groups involved and the more inclusive the representation, the higher the levels of buy-in and support. This may sometimes negate corporate norms, by having developers meet customers or site supervisors meet city officials. It should be exercised with savvy as to what would have the highest positive impact on the project, with the ultimate goal of creating a critical mass of contributors to project definition and demonstrating WIFFO, WIFFM, as well as confidence in capability and commitment.
  2.  Venue and Setting: Because of the unconventional audience of PAPD, the venue setup needs to be comfortable, relaxing, neutral, conducive of participation and business casual. This will place participating stakeholders in a state of mind that is at ease and allow them to participate as much as possible, leading into the third, and most important dimension of PAPD:
  3.  Effort and Contribution: Without the contribution of participating stakeholders, PAPD is almost pointless. The ultimate goal of PAPD is to engage stakeholders in a manner that would make them participate as much as possible, interact with one another, and share their ideas, opinions, and concerns to ultimately reach consensus and buy-in on the project definition and plan. PAPD is best moderated by a professionally trained moderator that is independent from the project and from all stakeholder groups involved. Such independence is important to ensure results are not skewed or biased, and that not one stakeholder group dominates the discussion or drowns the contributions of others. The moderator needs to ensure that all attendees are heard and participating and that any objections are addressed during the workshop. Unaddressed concerns can result in adversity to the project in the near future.

During PAPD, stakeholders are asked to work together on the processes of project planning, starting from a very high level with further defining the project objectives, followed by the scope statement and working their way down to the activity level of the work breakdown structure (WBS), and then assigning activity ownerships, sequencing of activities, and developing time estimates for these activities. Oftentimes the outcome of the initial PAPD session(s) needs further review and resonance testing during or after the workshop to accommodate project constraints. The next step is for the stakeholders participating in PAPD to assign resources (to the best of their abilities given the limitations of the workshop) and identify criteria that indicate success of the activities, as well as risks that can hinder the project and response plans in case of their occurrence. The experience brings team members together and makes them appreciate each other's roles and contributions to the project while developing a strong sense of ownership.


Blanchard, K., & Johnson, S. (2003). The one minute manager. New York, NY: William Morrow & Company.

Covey, S. R. (1989). The 7 habits of highly effective people. New York, NY: A Fireside Book, Simon and Schuster.

Dinsmore, P.C. (1990). Human factors in project management (revised edition). New York, NY: American Management Association.

Kotler, P., & Armstrong, G. (2011). Principles of marketing —fourteenth edition. New York, NY: Prentice Hall.

Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation. (1999). The logical framework approach: Handbook for objectives-oriented planning—Fourth edition. Oslo, Norway: NORAD.

Project Management Institute. (PMI). (2012a). A guide to the project management body of knowledge (PMBOK® guide) – Fifth edition. Newtown Square, PA: Author.

Project Management Institute. (PMI). (2012b). The standard for portfolio management – Third edition. Newtown Square, PA: Author.

Project Management Institute. (PMI). (2012c). The standard for program management – Third edition. Newtown Square, PA: Author.

Project Management Institute. (PMI). (2013). Managing change in organizations: A practice guide. Newtown Square, PA: Author.

Verma, V. K. (1995). Organizing projects for success. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

Verma, V. K. (1996). Human resource skills for the project manager. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

Verma, V. K. (2008). Managing the project team. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

© 2014, Emad E. Aziz, PMP, PgMP, PRINCE2P, CSSGB
Originally published as a part of the 2014 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Phoenix, Arizona, USA



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