Stakeholder analysis: the ultimate guide
When you first started, you loved how much of project management involved your superstar scheduling and organization skills.
Your ability to turn people’s ideas into concrete plans made you the superhero of your team.
But as you rise further in your career, you’ll start leading important projects. Bigger, more complicated, more delicate ones, with more people involved. And in addition to keeping them on schedule, you may also have to deal with getting buy-in from the C-suite, managing partner relationships, and more.
The more this happens, the more you need to worry about managing people and politics as much as project details and schedules. That’s probably a little less familiar and more complicated than the scrum sprints and kanban boards we all love so much.
This is where a formalized stakeholder analysis comes in to help you better understand and manage everyone involved in a project – from the CFO approving your budget to the buyer making final purchases.
Why you can’t skip stakeholder analysis
Stakeholder analysis is a systematic way to identify all the VIPs, worker bees, and any other important people involved in a given project. And not just who’s involved, but how they influence your project as well as each other, and what they need from you to succeed.
Think of it as background intel to improve your plans and communication.
One rough part of managing complicated projects is how quickly one small speed bump can throw everything off. A senior leader changes their mind on a single detail, and a whole team’s schedule can be affected.
No one wants that, so a stakeholder analysis helps you identify everyone involved, how they contribute, their interests, and what you need to do to keep them happy and your project on time.
How to conduct a stakeholder analysis
The exact steps to conduct a stakeholder analysis will depend on which approach you use, which we’ll go into further below. But regardless of which one you work with, the process will go through a few phases:
- Identify: start by listing out everyone involved in your project. These can range from internal team members to client teams or external communities, and their positions can exist in both official and unofficial capacities, down to the community that’ll be sending you angry emails if things go wrong.
- Prioritize: once you know the who, you need the how. How do the different stakeholders interact with the project and each other? Who can change the entire outcome? This is one of the most important steps, so there are multiple approaches to fit your needs.
- Plan: when you’ve gotten a grip on what everyone needs, it’s time to create a plan to make that happen. By digging into the motivations and interests of different stakeholders, you can create a communications plan that caters to everyone.
- Implement: do your thing using your project management method of choice, following and updating your communication plan to keep stakeholders in the loop.
- Adjust: even the best plans (made by the best project manager) can’t be set in stone, this is the whole basis of agile, after all. As the project progresses and changes, your stakeholders and their involvements may too.
Exactly how you prioritize your stakeholders, or analyze and iterate your plan as it goes along, will depend on which approach you take. Here are a few popular methods a rising project manager like yourself should know.
Popular stakeholder analysis methodologies
The power/interest grid is a basic matrix that other methods are based on or influenced by, so it’s a great place to start.
This matrix helps you visualize the two most important parts of a stakeholder’s involvement: how much power they have over the project, and how invested or interested they are in its success.
Plotting stakeholders onto that matrix groups them into four general categories of stakeholders, from those you need to manage closely to those who just need to be kept in the know.
For example, in a website redesign, customer support will need to be kept informed in order to field related support queries, but the marketing team needs to be more closely involved and managed to incorporate it into their campaigns.
When to use it: this is a simple analysis framework that works best for simpler projects. The general “buckets” it creates is handy for projects where they may be few stakeholders involved, without competing interests.
Three Dimensional Stakeholders Analysis
This method – which you can abbrev to 3dSA – is a more advanced version of the power/interest matrix.
Where the matrix is obviously two-dimensional, this approach adds a third dimension in the form of risk management. It’s a way of combining it with project management and stakeholder analysis.
With the 3dSA, you start with a power/interest grid, but also include a stakeholder’s attitude as a third layer, repped by the symbol’s size and color on the matrix.
How does this come in handy? It adds important nuance that needs to be taken into account for complex projects.
For example, say you have a manager involved in a project that would normally require minimum effort to supervise. However, they’re not on board with the idea and aren’t afraid to show it. Their negative attitude changes the amount of impact they can have on the project, which a 3dSA would account for.
When to use it: Bringing a risk management layer into your stakeholder analysis is crucial on work with a fair amount of uncertainty. Stakeholders’ attitudes, and how they change over time, can drastically change the course of a project.
For example, a leader changing their mind on even a small decision can throw your whole timeline off. To avoid an annoyance like that, this model helps you visualize their attitudes’ influence on the project.
RACI is another matrix-based approach that goes a bit deeper than the power/interest grid by considering how a stakeholder’s involvement can change throughout the course of the project.
And like the grid, it includes four categories of involvement:
- Responsible for completing the work
- Accountable for ensuring the work gets done
- Consulted on the work
- Informed of the outcome
In this model, after identifying each stakeholder, you’ll list out each stage included in the bigger project. Then for each stakeholder, you’ll define their involvement in that part.
For example, say you’re launching a new “Help” section of the company website. The project manager would be accountable for most of the tasks, which would be broken down one by one on the matrix. The head of customer support might be consulted on the section’s contents, the design team would be responsible for completing the work, and a marketing stakeholder would be informed of the outcome so they could promote the new section.
When to use it: like the power/interest grid, this methodology works best when you have fewer stakeholders to keep track of and their interests don’t compete too much. But you’ll want to go with this one for more complicated projects or when you want to visualize the balance of work and decision-making across stakeholders or identify any gaps in accountability.
Stakeholder salience model
Next up, we have another methodology that maps three different attributes against each other. In this case, it’s power, legitimacy, and urgency. It sees legitimacy as the level of involvement and urgency as the level of responsiveness expected of the stakeholder.
In the salience model, the three elements come together in a Venn diagram. The overlapping elements create seven different categories of stakeholders, which you can then prioritize accordingly.
The more overlap a stakeholder has on the Venn diagram, the more closely they need to be managed and monitored. Those with high levels of each attribute are your core stakeholders that need to be, well, core to your project management strategy.
For example, your direct supervisors and top managers who are both involved in and impact the project will be dominant stakeholders you need to engage regularly. Whereas your CFO and CEO are less involved and responsive to the project as dormant stakeholders who still hold power to impact or even cancel it.
When to use it: like the previous analysis models, the salience model is pretty straightforward. Where it stands out is in the number of stakeholder segments it allows, with seven instead of four. This is helpful when you’re dealing with a project that has a lot of cooks in the kitchen, if you will, but is otherwise simple.
Finally, we have the Stakeholder’s Circle, created by Dr. Lynda Bourne. Settle in, because this one takes some attention to understand.
This method of mapping stakeholders looks at stakeholder relations based on three factors: power, proximity, and urgency. Proximity is how closely involved they are, with urgency meaning how important the project is to them.
After all stakeholders are identified with this method, you categorize them based on what type of stakeholder they are. But then you take mapping even further by giving each one a score for the three factors listed above, and indexing all of this information together to rank your stakeholders by priority.
Wait, not done yet! Finally, the highest priority stakeholders are mapped onto a pie chart-like visualization like this.
When to use it: as you can see, Stakeholder’s Circle isn’t simple, and neither are the projects it works best with. This approach is most useful for projects with lots of stakeholders, as a way to visualize how different stakeholders’ importance to the project compare to each other.
It’s a Goldilocks situation
Ultimately, stakeholder analysis is a Goldilocks situation. Regardless of how simple or complex your needs are, the aim is to find an approach that’s not too much or too little, but just right. And there are different methodologies at every point on that scale to accommodate your project.
You don’t want to go overboard with a stakeholder’s circle when you only have a few people involved, or skip over important nuances for the sake of simplicity. Your goal should be to understand the people you’ll be communicating with enough to create and kick off your work.