A rugby-playing project manager told me that stakeholders have to have ‘skin in the game’ or else they’re just spectators.
Having skin in the game means that the ‘game’ matters to you – not in some abstracted intellectual sense, but in a concrete manner. The project’s success impacts you; and the consequences of failure hurt you. If your career or reputation can’t possibly be damaged by an outright failure, then you’re not a project partner (stakeholder). You might be a beneficiary, someone who absolutely needs the project to succeed, but you’re not a project partner (stakeholder).
I’ve worked on intranet projects where I didn’t share terminology with the client. We hadn’t discussed enough things to align our vocab. When discussing audiences, admins, contributors, users, and stakeholders, I assumed stakeholders needed involving in every element of our plans and so was a little confused when there wasn’t even a pathway to consult with them. I wondered if I was being blocked from senior management for some political reason. Turned out, of course, that this organisation called employees ‘stakeholders’, because the success of the new intranet would be measured by usage and engagement.
Knowing that culture is embedded, it’s not (usually) my job to challenge such vocabulary, but I think it was unhelpful in the extreme because it hid the accountable and responsible people. In order to involve the people who would literally steer the strategy and direction of development, I had to do my own mental partner mapping, starting with the sponsor and budget holders.
I also feel it does a disservice to the intranet users and communication audiences. Calling them ‘stakeholders’ puts too much responsibility on the people we’re supposed to consider, consult, and serve.
Our language choices are important, and I hear that the term ‘stakeholder’ can be found offensive by American First Nations and allies (and no doubt respective peoples in other countries). Just as we are ridding our vocabulary of certain loaded terms that refer to war, violence, slavery, gender, and race, the word ‘stakeholder’ may be best replaced. I’ve been advised to “just state who you really mean” but that doesn’t work perfectly, as some titles that indicate people or groups (like ‘leader’) won’t be leading and will only be consulted on a project. Because I only need a term that refers to a fuzzy definition of decision-makers within the organisation, I might prefer ‘project partners’. You can read why ‘stakeholder’ can offend and how to consider alternatives on Professor Mark Reed’s article.
People and colleagues versus users
And just quickly, no, not every employee / colleague is a user, and there are lots of different audiences within an organisation so no, I won’t refer to everyone the intranet is for as ‘people’ or ‘employees’. I use such words for very specific reasons. I say ‘employees’ when I mean employees, and ‘intranet users’ when I mean people who can and do use the intranet. I respect that we might use general terms when communicating but I am using specific terms because I’m planning with project partners (stakeholders), not communicating. I will use the appropriate term for the many different groups of people in an org so that my meaning is clear.
The best beneficiary
Just because the Health & Safety Director isn’t an intranet project partner, doesn’t mean they’re not really important to the success of the new or revamped intranet. In my experience, the H&S Director and team will likely be quite engaged and want to get onboard with new ways of working as quickly as possible. The new H&S section of the intranet can be a good exemplar. So, the H&S Director is fully involved and benefits greatly from a better intranet, but they don’t have ‘skin in the game’ and are not a project partner because their career, reputation, and work won’t be damaged by the project’s delay or abject failure.
Whereas, the sponsor and budget holders, such as the Head of Internal Communications, CIO, HR / People Director, would be personally outraged and held accountable for a train-wreck project – literally having to explain to the Board where the time and money had been misspent.
It’s RACI but with Accountable first
If I still haven’t convinced you that not everyone is a project partner (stakeholder) in your intranet, then consider your RACI (which I think should be spelt ARCI). Some few people are held accountable (A) for what happens, some more are responsible (R) for implementation, and so these two small groups of people are true project partners (stakeholders). Then there’s a larger group of people who you should consult (C), and then there’s a likely large group of people who should be kept informed (I). Accountable, Responsible, Consulted, Informed. ARCI.
Project partners have skin in the game. They can be hurt by failure. If failure can’t hurt them, they’re not partners, even if they’re important beneficiaries.
As RuPaul says, “if they ain’t paying your bills, pay them no mind”. But maybe entertain feedback, yeah?