Project Practitioners > The mighty and destructive power of forgotten stakeholders

The mighty and destructive power of forgotten stakeholders

By Cinda Voegtli

Project Lessons from a Hurricane - Part 4

This blog is an ode to the undetected project stakeholder who might just blow up your project when you least expect it. I know because it happened to me. Here's the story, what I learned, and what I'm doing now at work to make sure it doesn't happen again. 

Last year I wrote about various project lessons learned from my parents' experience with Hurricane Gustav - two properties severely damaged and all the resulting work to recover. I learned a painful project lesson just when I thought all my work helping them was done. 

As things settled down a few weeks after the storm, my father asked me to help with the all-critical list of damaged property to be submitted to the insurance company. Almost an entire houseful of furniture had gotten soaked with rain and was lost. We needed a full inventory, with item descriptions, brand names, damage descriptions, and estimated replacement value. 

This was a great way for me to help. The list would be long and require spreadsheet setup and a bunch of data entry and online research. My dad is computer literate but was busy with other issues. My mom is not computer literate at all. So that left creating this list to me - my sub-project to run. I needed to work with my mom to get all the info in her head about the various objects, do research online to estimate replacement values, and make sure the list format would work for submission to insurance. 

My dad and I had already talked about how to do it. He was handling all the insurance company interactions and repair bid solicitation. I found the insurance company's claim form on their website and showed my dad. We made a design decision to format our spreadsheet in the same format as their form, so there would be no issue with them accepting our data or delays from them having to transcribe it. My dad was thrilled. 

So I proceeded. I took a bunch of handwritten inventory notes my mom had already made and got some of it into the spreadsheet. Then I had to fly home to California. I took it all with me and kept diligently plugging away. My dad and I had agreed on a day and time to get onto phone and review what I had found for replacement value numbers and make final decisions on what to file. I was about to head home from work to do a few last items before the call. I was feeling great that I had actually gotten to do something substantial to help them out. 

But then, I got an early, unexpected phone call from my dad. "Look - we’re in a hurry and need to get this submitted and don't want to take any more of your time. So we'll take it from here." 

Whaaaat?   (Basically, the main project stakeholder was blowing off my work and kicking me off the project.)  

With a little pressing from me, he finally said “Look, my printer stopped working and I can’t print out the final spreadsheet you were going to email to me. But as it turns out, even if I could get the printout, your mom is really uncomfortable with all this. She has decided she wants us to submit her handwritten items. She just had me call the insurance company to make sure it would be OK in that form." 

BAMM. There it is. The hidden projector stakeholder. And all this time, I thought I was dealing with the stakeholder who mattered. (It's not that my mom doesn't matter! But in situations like this, to my knowledge my dad has always run the show.) He had agreed with me on the electronic approach. I had done the right consultation, I thought! I assumed I had my stakeholder approval. 

I was fairly upset. Not only was my work wasted and devalued, all that joy at having done something good for them was gone in a flash. (Hmmm - is this how team members feel when we unceremoniously change specs, throw away work, cancel projects, without regard to the impact?) 

 In a calmer frame of mind, I sat and thought about what I had done wrong. Basically, I did not stop for even 5 minutes to do a thorough, thoughtful stakeholder-and-influencer analysis. My dad and I are buddies, have been forever. We're both engineers and both used to the computer. I had totally run with his authority as the major project stakeholder. We both thought we were taking the "right" approach. It never even occurred to me to sell my mother on the electronic approach. It’s what Dad wants; it’s right in my eyes; hey let’s get going.

I realized that my mother had not bought into the approach at all, but had never said anything. But when the printer issue occurred, she had her opening and spoke up and got what she really wanted. 

When I called my sister later in total frustration, she said “Well, you know, those of us who aren’t computer-y like you, we can’t even look at stuff in spreadsheets very well, it’s not comfortable. I bet Mom just really wants to stay with her handwritten list because she can read and understand it and feels sure all her items will get submitted properly.” 

BAMM again. I hadn’t thought to understand the very different needs of different stakeholders. I assumed the one in "authority" was making all the decisions according to their standards and that's all I needed. Wrong. Even if that stakeholder was "more powerful", that didn't mean we're were immune from another stakeholder exerting influence. 

Finally, I realized that this stakeholder had quite a strong emotional stake in this project. The output of this project was very important to her, and there was apprehension associated with all the unknowns. (Sound familiar?) In this case, this stakeholder was having to make a list of all the personal possessions wiped out by rain damage. Her stake in this project was not about "replacing my furniture." This was about recovering from the loss of treasured furniture and objects and getting justice from an insurance company that she already distrusted to do the right thing. The submittal process itself was a key step to her, one she cared about a great deal, to feel comfortable she'd get the outcome she wanted. And here I had taken the job and done it my way without a second thought that she’d even have an opinion or concern. 

The above story happened last year. But the lesson has lingered. Even on small projects at work, I now try to pay way more attention to who those hidden stakeholders might be and how to work with them. There are stakeholders who care about outcomes only. There are stakeholders who also care about how we get to the outcomes and how we involve them. There are obvious stakeholders and not so obvious ones! It's our job to find them all - or suffer the consequences. 

A final note. Episodes like this are why it makes me absolutely crazy when people on small projects say "I don't need to do that [insert deliverable name here]. That's just paperwork and I already know what I need to do." Well, my project was small, and I thought I knew who the stakeholder was, and I got burned. I didn't need a Word doc stakeholder analysis on my small project...but it sure would have been a good idea to go through the thought process.. If I had methodically thought it through in like 1 minute, I could have saved myself that busted end-game. 

I hope to never "miss" a stakeholder again. There's no excuse for any of us if we do!

Note:  For what to think about in a stakeholder analysis, here are two templates:  Stakeholder analysis summary table;   and Stakeholder/Influencer Assessment and Plan

For the previous articles in the Hurricane series: Lesson 1 on project leadership; Lesson 2 on competence, judgment, and confidence;  Lesson 3 on handling team angst during uncertainty. 

Not all comments are posted. Posted comments are subject to editing for clarity and length.

I never expected such a story behind the title :)
Very impressive, and makes you look at things more attentively. Thanks, Cinda!

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