Gotta Catch 'Em All: How to Develop a Comprehensive Stakeholder List

One of my readers asked me how project managers can make sure they're not forgetting about any key project stakeholders as they're preparing for a kickoff meeting. As I pondered that question, I realized this topic would also give me a great excuse to test out a cool feature of Zenkit, one of the PM tools that I've previously reviewed. Here's how I'd recommend catching them all to develop a comprehensive stakeholder list:

1. Do a brain dump. Surprisingly, this is one activity that seems to remain obstinately low-tech, and that's to rack your brain for everyone that the project may impact, either directly or indirectly. Making a sequential list of stakeholders is fraught with peril, because you may miss some individuals as your brain jumps from group to group. A better technique would be to develop a mind map. A piece of paper or a whiteboard would serve you well here. But, in the nomadic existence of a consultant, I never seem to have much of either. Hence, the Zenkit digital mind map.

Mind map: A graphical technique for visualizing connections between several ideas or pieces of information
— BusinessDictionary.com
Mind Map.png

Mind Mapping Best Practices

Start out with a couple key categories and branch off from there. Examples might include system end users, international donors, management team, etc.

Then, list all of the individuals or groups in that category whose needs should be considered.

Assign labels to assess stakeholders' receptivity to the proposed change. This will be helpful when developing communication and change management plans in later project phases.

I'd recommend using pseudonyms to protect your stakeholders' identities. The last thing you want is for the mind map to pop up on your computer screen when meeting with a critical stakeholder that you've labeled with a giant red "resistor" label. Awkward conversation.

2. After your team has brainstormed all possible stakeholders, send a version of the mind map to your client to validate in advance of the kickoff meeting. Make an educated guess about which stakeholders should be invited to the meeting. You'll want to keep the kickoff small, so I'd recommend that you only add 3 or 4 people max based on this list. Note: the kickoff must include your client as well as the project sponsor to ensure project buy-in.

3. Allocate time for a stakeholder review at the kickoff meeting. This discussion shouldn't go beyond a simple "We'll be finalizing the stakeholder list at one of our first meetings. Are there any stakeholders we may have missed?" This is not the time to talk about how Brock hates the project and wants to sabotage it, and Misty is retiring soon and this project is her legacy. The discussion should be focused on the broad categories of stakeholders that may be missing. Set expectations before you get to the slide, and allocate only 5 minutes for this topic in the kickoff meeting agenda to reinforce the point.

4. I mentioned finalizing the stakeholders list, but, in reality, the stakeholders list may never be final. As the project develops, additional interested parties may come to light that were not considered at the outset. This does not mean you're expanding the scope and, therefore, the stakeholders. It means you are considering additional stakeholders that are impacted by the original scope but were initially overlooked. Revisit the mind map periodically to be sure that the list is comprehensive. I'd suggest quarterly.