article project management

Understand stakeholders better for the best chances of success

Two Problems

Someone has given you a new shiny project to do, so you’ve got a problem that needs a solution. Thing is now you have two problems, the easy one is probably the shiny project, the harder one is managing the stakeholders.

To avoid poor project outcomes some stakeholders (like managers) will just want information, some are providing resources to the project and some have to be managed to prevent them derailing or threatening the project’s success.

First Steps in Stakeholder Analysis

As with anything in project management the first step is always to make a list that captures something of the problem you’re facing and from that we can pull out some germ of truth to help us figure out what to do next.

So in your list gather:

  • The stakeholder’s name, email, handle, etc.
  • The stakeholder’s role or relationship to the project, and any groups you can identify
  • The stakeholder’s project power vs project interest (optional)

We’ll explore these topics in a bit more depth now.


When ordinary people become stakeholders in a project some of their expectations as stakeholders differ on account of the different roles that the stakeholder plays. For example, the managing director of your firm will have a different point of view on the project to the lead developer, which will be different again than the point of view of the firm’s clients.

Some key roles to look out for in your project are:

  • Sponsor – the person who wants this project and whose word is final on the project. This person can clear the path of potential issues around and above the project (if necessary). Ideally it’s just one person, if it’s more than one try to make it one because it removes a potential political hurdle when dual sponsors have different views.
  • Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) – these are easy to spot, they’re the people that you can consult on more technical aspects or specifics. They may or may not be people that contribute directly to the project, but having an SME agree with you (or you agreeing with them!) is never a bad way to be.
  • Project Managers – you might think you’re the project manager, but often there are other people on the periphery who will exert control over the project without explicitly being given authority to do so. It’s good to identify the people that might do this, if only to communicate what the lines of responsibility actually are.
  • Project Team – the workers, this might include you but generally it’s anyone who will work on the project in whatever capacity. If you have lead engineers or support staff it’s useful to identify this too (so that when you share this information other people can use it like a directory).
  • Externals – so if you have external stakeholders to your organisation then the chances are their opinion is quite important. This is likely because they’re clients or they will be beneficiaries or affected by the project in some way. They will probably not contribute much to the project but you need to understand them. If you have more than one type of external stakeholder, record that as well.

Power vs Interest (optional)

There are many things you can do with stakeholder analysis. They’re all designed to give you insight into what people might expect. Power vs interest is a very common and reasonably useful way, but there are plenty of others, each with their own strengths and benefits.

To be honest there’s no absolute need for this but you might do it for two reasons:

  1. It’s sometimes quite revealing to formulate opinions on people’s expectations through this lens.
  2. It can be quite fun!

Before you make the list though, be careful to consider who might see your list. Even though you may try to be truthful/accurate you may find the people you have captured information on disagree with your categorisations. Which can be both embarrassing and frustrating, so consider whether you will make two lists. One to communicate and share with the other stakeholders, and one that is just for you to understand their motivations.

If you do decide to try it, it’s very straight forward. For each of your stakeholders mark them out of 10 in terms of their power/influence on this project (0=no power or influence, 9=very powerful/influential) and then mark them again for their interest (0=no interest, 9=very interested).

Then plot them on a scatter chart, where they appear on that diagram will influence how you communicate with them.

  • Bottom left – no power/no interest – you don’t want too many people in this quadrant if you do you might have a problem delivering the project.
  • Top left – lots of power/no interest – keep these people up-to-date they have the ability to derail your efforts.
  • Bottom right – no power/lots of interest hopefully the junior members of your project team is in here somewhere.
  • Top right – lots of power/lots of interest – hopefully your sponsor, PM and more senior project team members are in here.
Power and influence vs interest graph showing four quadrants to fully understand your stakeholders better

These things are very subjective, so when you plot it first time it probably won’t feel quite right. You might have scored some of the people on different aspects of power/interest (since there are many). So tweak it a bit until it feels like you can justify the diagram as a whole.

Putting it all together

You’ve got your list, you’ve plotted your scatter diagram what now? Well if you’re lazy like me you might leave it there. You’ve done the analysis, you know more now than you did at the start, but some more useful things you could do with your stakeholder analysis are:

  • Communicate On It – I’ve hinted at this already, but it’s very helpful for everyone to know what their role is on a project. It helps set their expectations from you and your expectations of them. I’d personally just share the version with just names and roles in it at the start of the project. If questions arise at this stage it’s good to get them out in the open.
  • Plan From It – a lot of the people in your stakeholder analysis are likely to be key resources in your project. Having them, their diaries and their availability easily accessible in your project folder makes everything a bit simpler.
  • Reorganise the Team – if after doing the power vs interest analysis you decide that your team isn’t balanced, and you have scope to do it, use the analysis to reorganise the team or make some substitutions. To be honest though I’ve rarely had this luxury.
  • Communicate With It – a lot of successful project management is about communication. If you understand the stakeholders then you can tailor the communications to suit the stakeholders. For example the sponsor is employing you to handle the details, so high level progress and issues will probably be fine for them – but it depends on their level of interest. The SMEs and externals probably just like to know high level progress but you might phrase it differently for each audience. Finally, the project team probably want short term detailed plans. So, come up with a small suite of reports and decide who gets what report and use your analysis as a guide to the distribution and content.
project management

The Silver Lining Of A Lead Balloon

The Heathrow Terminal 5 story is not all bad. Yes it was a bit of a shambles, yes senior management was fired. But today I found some joy in BA’s misery.

A Metaphor

Now don’t get me wrong this isn’t just me deriving pleasure from others misfortune. Although admittedly as a Brit I am innately very good at that. So good in fact that it’s a constant surprise that the Germans managed to invent a word for what is typically a British malaise: schadenfreude.

No, the silver lining of BA’s lead balloon is that T5 has become a common intellectual currency. It’s failure has so clearly underlined the pitfalls of not doing enough testing that I heard T5 being used as an analogy in a recent implementation meeting. A.N.Other said:

“I would not be happy committing to that deadline if we had to cut testing. The last thing I want is for this to become another T5 …”

Nothing gives a better fuzzy feeling than completing a long testing phase. However if testing is getting squeezed out then you have to get management to agree to extending the deadline before you’ve actually reached that deadline. Indeed cutting testing is to invite what Steve Connell has coined as “Wishful Thinking”, and is the 13th classic mistake of software project management:

Wishful thinking isn’t just optimism. It’s closing your eyes and hoping something works when you have no reasonable basis for thinking it will. … It undermines meaningful planning and may be at the root of more software problems than all other causes combined.


article project management

You think your code don’t smell?

So, code reviews are great. Get the benefit of some ass-hole telling you that your comments should be C-style (/*) and not C++-style (//) and remind you that the member name ‘mSuckThis’ is not suitable, ever. No really, code reviews are great. It’s just that a lot of times they just don’t work.

The first time I encountered code-review was when my boss of the time had just read some book on how to manage programmers and was keen to inflict it on all his employees. His code-review process was to take all my work print it out and go through it line-by-line. Master and student style.

This type of code-review, in the way that he implemented it, was meaningless. It concentrated on an important but largely automatable aspect of code review and that is: adherence to coding guidelines.

As I see it there are three types of defect that code review is trying to identify:

  1. Adherence to coding guidelines (or lack of it) and inter-package dependencies.
  2. Identification of localised errors: “that loop is infite”, or “that algorithim should be log(N) and not N^2”, “that module is way too big”
  3. Identification of non-local errors. Where local means local to the code-review. For instance the impact of adding a throw on a widely used method and how that affects all the dependent code paths.

I question anyone’s ability to fully understand the dynamic nature of any reasonable sized piece of software by just looking at a small excerpt. Every time you review that code you have to ‘load’ that supporting information into your head to be able to identify whether the code is totally awesome or tragically bogus. In my experience defects of a local type (type 2) were sadly rarely identified by code review and defects of a non-local type (type 3) almost never.

The improvement of code-quality I’m passionate about. But I don’t see any realistic way to achieve what I want. To identify non-local errors you really need your code reviewer to sit next to you during the development or be as deeply involved in the code as you are. It probably would need a similar approach to reliably find local errors too. However your reviewer is rarely as involved as that. It seems that some judicious use of pair programming might be the answer but that comes with its own problems.

It seems that to get the best out of code-reviews you have to be very careful about how you implement them. Sure, let’s automate what we can automate and pair program on tricky items but the real code-review needs to be extremely skilfully handled to get the best bang-for-your-buck-chuck.