Have you ever felt like that although your project has the potential to impact many people you can’t get through the brick wall which stands between you and your team and the rest of the world?

Stakeholders can make or break a project and regardless of the type of project they are the ones you should consider first and foremost. If your stakeholders do not like your project, or if they do not have enough information or interest in it, they may put an end to it or make your project management life miserable.

Stakeholders are individuals, groups, and organisations that could impact or be impacted by your project. They are the people you involve in your project, including those for whom you design products and those to whom you communicate and report your project activities.

There are many benefits to using a stakeholder-based approach. It facilitates a more effective strategy for dissemination and marketing, and opens opportunities for more engagement and support from important stakeholders who can increase the quality and appropriateness of the project deliverables.

In this article I would like to show you how you can use the Design Thinking method to identify the needs of your stakeholder and to manage their engagement.

Project stakeholders are all the key people and organizations that can impact or be impacted by your project. Below is an example of the stakeholders in a European project:

Stakeholder map

Now, I would like to invite you to do an exercise.

You can do it on your own, but it makes more sense to do it with your project team! Think about  a project you’re managing at the moment. Use a blank piece of a flipchart paper to make a stakeholder poster. From old magazines and newspapers, cut out photographs that represent the stakeholders you can identify. Paste them on the paper. It’s a very creative exercise that will open up a discussion about who your stakeholders are and how different team members see them.

In the center of your poster place all the core stakeholders such as your project team members. The people and groups who have a bigger impact on your project should be in the next layer closer to the centre (direct stakeholders) and those who have a minor influence should be placed on the edges (indirect stakeholders).

Design Thinking

The Design Thinking approach can help you to learn more about the needs and expectations of the most important stakeholders. It encourages you to empathise with your stakeholders.

Design Thinking is a method for the practical and creative resolution of problems. It is a form of solution-based thinking. The Design Thinking method will help you to learn who your stakeholders are, what motivates them, and what their communication preferences are.

The foundation of the Design Thinking process is empathy. It takes time to empathise. However, I can assure you that if you do it properly  it’ll pay off later in your project.


So coming back to the exercise: Choose 4 or 5 core and direct stakeholders from your poster. If you do the exercise with your team assign one stakeholder to two people. You should now try to identify people who represent these stakeholder groups. If university students are one of your direct stakeholders you need to identify who is a typical and who is an extreme example of this type of stakeholder.

The Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University, commonly known as the d.school published a set of resourceful tools called The Design Thinking Bootleg in 2018. According to it, “When you speak with and observe extreme users [stakeholders], their needs are amplified and their work-arounds are often more notable. This helps you pull out meaningful needs that may not pop out when engaging with the middle of the bell curve. However, the needs that are uncovered through extreme users [stakeholders] are often also the needs of a wider population.”

Once you identify specific representatives of core and direct stakeholders talk to them and observe them in the environment related to your project. For example if your project should enhance Universities’ Social Responsibility you should interview a student who is an extreme stakeholder, e.g. a person with disability.


View the student and her behavior in the university. Observe the relations between university staff and lectures and the student. Watch her and other students.


Interview the student. Before you meet her, get together with your team to brainstorm the kind of questions you could ask. When you interview your stakeholders either ask permission to record the discussion or bring a colleague who will take notes while you focus on the interview.

– Ask open questions and don’t suggest answers.

– Ask why. Even when you think you know the answer, ask people why they do or say things. The answers will sometimes surprise you. A conversation started from one question should go on as long as it needs to. Don’t stop your interviewee and don’t be afraid of silence. Allow the discussion to have a natural flow.

– Encourage stories. Whether or not the stories people tell are true, they reveal how they think about the world. Ask questions that get people telling stories.

– Look for inconsistencies. Sometimes what people say and what they do are different. These inconsistencies often hide interesting insights.

– Pay attention to nonverbal cues. Body language very often says more about a person than words.

By doing this exercise you will learn much more about needs and expectations of your stakeholders than by simply assuming you know what they need and what they expect from your project.

“We all carry our experiences, understanding, and expertise with us . Your assumptions may be misconceptions and stereotypes, and can restrict the amount of real empathy you can build. Assume a beginner’s mindset in order to put aside these biases, so that you can approach a (…) challenge with fresh eyes.”

Scott Doorley, Sarah Holcomb, Perry Klebahn, Kathryn Segovia, and Jeremy Utley / d.school

You should now come together with your team and discuss your findings. The next Design Thinking steps of define, ideate, prototype and test can guide you in how to manage the stakeholder engagement and their motivation; also how to monitor their involvement so your project will give them what they need. However, you may also choose to use a more typical project management approach and simply make a stakeholder management plan considering communication, engagement and motivation factors. The approach you choose may depend on a complexity of your project.

We teach both methods on our project management and Design Thinking courses. Get in touch and tell us about your challenges and successes in stakeholder management!

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