Recently my work and home life have crossed paths… don’t you just love it when that happens!

Without going into specifics, let me say that I am now sitting on the other side of the stakeholder table and I am not enjoying the view quite so much. It has reminded me just how important stakeholder engagement actually is.

To give you a sense for the scenario, let’s imagine that the lovely community where you live is suddenly facing significant construction and expansion from a local corporation, and this will impact the local environment, increase traffic through your community, increase safety concerns and impact local residents’ quality of life. The corporation has hired consultants to formulate their plans and they are working through the permitting process. However, they skipped over an important early step in the planning process – engaging and getting input from their stakeholders.

The first indication that this might have been a mistake was the permit hearing, in which over 50 stakeholders showed up vocalizing their concerns, and the meeting went on for over 3 hours until it was halted. Clearly, the stakeholders were upset. Interestingly, the executive sponsor for the initiative didn’t even show up at that meeting, sending a clear message that it wasn’t important to him or maybe he just didn’t feel that it was necessary. Now he will be spending his time in damage control meetings. 

What could they have done differently and what should they do now?

Firstly, they could have engaged stakeholders and looked for their input during the early planning process. This might have helped them create a design that would have less impact on the environment and the community. However, to do this, they would have had to be open to changing their own perspectives on what the project looked like. It might have also required them to think creatively about their options. 

Before beginning stakeholder conversations, it is important to be really clear about the outcomes that you need to achieve through the initiative. There are often many approaches that would work, and some may be more costly or impactful than others. A clear definition of outcomes helps kick-start the solution creative thinking & design process. 

All too often, I see clients become fixated with what they are doing and how they are doing it, rather than stepping back to look at the bigger picture – and their “why”. When you get locked into an approach or a definition of what success looks like without investigating the compelling reasons for the initiative and clearly defining the outcomes you need to see, it can be difficult to backtrack and start with a fresh approach – generally there is a reluctance to start again as they have already spent considerable time and money getting to the current point of the process. 

It takes strong leadership to engage stakeholders who you know will likely have a difficult time with your project, and have a very different point of view from yours. It requires a willingness to engage, and see the world from their perspective, and an openness to think about a new approach. It requires effort to think about what the “win-win” might be and make compromises to achieve that.

Corporations and executive leaders can exert considerable influence to make things happen, however it’s important that they pause to ask not if they could do it, but if they should do it. Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean that you should. 

Furthermore, in this day and age when climate change and environmental impact are top of mind as we witness major weather events world-wide, the environmental impact of all construction projects should be assessed before finalizing plans. Corporations need to ask how they can leave the environment in a better place post-construction, and how can they minimize their impact?

OK, back to how this applies to the projects that we lead and what we can take away from this experience.

Firstly, let’s talk about the approach. I’m using the term “engagement” as the key activity with stakeholders on my projects, rather than “stakeholder management”. Engagement suggests that we are looking to have a conversation, create synergy, and get into alignment. We need to identify stakeholders and then analyze their concerns in order to determine how to approach them initially, and how to best engage them. Engagement is an activity that will run the entire duration of the project, and it requires time and commitment from both parties. 

The Stakeholder Engagement Approach 

1) Identify your stakeholders & invite them to an information session

When you have your vision and outcomes ready, invite your stakeholders in for an introductory overview. Let them know why you are doing the project, and outline the options for how you plan to approach it. You don’t need to have all the information and a detailed plan nailed down at this point. Invite their questions and perspectives. When considering feedback, it is important to look at internal and external constraints and how these might impact the project and outcomes. Ask stakeholders for input on what you might not have thought of, and what you might be missing. Take this information back to your team and review it to see if it changes any of the early assumptions you have made. Do you need to adjust your approach or plan based on the stakeholder feedback?

Step 2: Formalize a plan that stakeholders can get behind

When considering stakeholder feedback, it’s important to keep coming back to the desired outcomes – what are the “must-haves” vs the “nice-to-haves”. What are the options for designs or approaches, and what are the benefits and drawbacks from each option. Document these options and review with your executives and project teams. Ensure that their feedback is incorporated into the options. Present again to stakeholders and negotiate a design or plan that will work for the majority of stakeholders. What can they live with? It is important to know that you can’t please everyone, and you also cannot design by committee. At the same time, the project team cannot live in a bubble and have to consider outside input otherwise the solution they come up with will have major flaws or gaps.  

Step 3: Engage, Engage, Engage

This is the step that many project leaders skip over. Projects meander and change. It is important to keep your stakeholder groups involved and engaged throughout the project. Lack of interest and lack of engagement is one of the key complaints that I hear from project leaders. How do you get a stakeholder interested enough so that they will stay engaged with you and support the project? To begin with, stakeholders need to understand their role on the project, and what you need from them. You need to understand how they are impacted by the project or project outcomes, and what they need from you. The level of engagement will be different for different stakeholder groups. 

At the end of the day, most stakeholders will work with you to ensure your collective success. Very few will spend their time and energy working against you and trying to derail your efforts. Unless of course you forgot to include them in the conversation at the outset. Then all bets are off the table so get ready to spend way too much of your time and energy chasing them down and trying to appease them later. 

If you’ve been on the stakeholder or the project leader side, and found the engagement lacking, leave a comment and let us know how you handled that. Did you cross your fingers and hope for the best, or did you actively try to bring them back into the conversation? How did it work out for you?


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