Stakeholder engagement: why bother?

This was a post I originally published on LinkedIn (the title was deliberately provocative).  It is an answer to the (two-level) question why do we do stakeholder engagement and who is a legitimate stakeholder (i.e. requiring engagement)?

The literature is full of competing views on this, ranging from the normative (rights-based) to the instrumental (power-based).

Someone who takes an instrumental viewpoint is more likely to have a narrower group of legitimate stakeholders and be unmoved by a rights-based narrative to include others.  I firmly believe that you need to take a “big tent” view of legitimate stakeholders and that the best way to counter the narrow view is to use a power-based narrative and show that engaging low influence stakeholders is in your own self interest.

Consider a standard influence-engagement 2×2 (below).  Using a power-based narrative, I can make a case for engaging with stakeholders across the spectrum.  

This is not to say that you need to do so at the same level for all stakeholders – that would stretch your engagement resources to a molecular level of thinness!  To lift a principle from the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act you need to try to engage stakeholders to the extent they want to be or, if that isn’t possible, explain why.

High Influence

Seen from a power perspective, the high influence stakeholders are a “no brainier” for engagement.  High influence/high engagement stakeholders are the individuals or organisations which can make or break activities and anyone who ignores them is heading for disaster.

Similarly, high influence/low engagement stakeholders are potential allies or opponents and, as such, represent an opportunity or a threat.  Engaging with them to ensure the former rather than latter is clearly in your own best interest.

Low Influence

This is the crucial part – how do you build a power-based narrative to justify engagement with low influence stakeholders?  Let me put forward three scenarios;

  1. Low influence stakeholders who become more engaged in a project on their own may deploy more of their resources accordingly, thus becoming more influential.
  2. While stakeholders may themselves have low influence they may have links (formal or informal) to those of higher influence, or their normative claim may attract the attention of a high influence stakeholder – beware network effects!
  3. It has never been easier for relatively low influence individuals and groups to unite around a common purpose (c.f. Clay Shirley’s Here Comes Everybody or Martin Gurri’s The Revolt of the Public).  By uniting in this fashion, they collectively become more influential.

The thing that unites all three scenarios is the need for early engagement to establish goodwill.  If you wait until the stakeholders have gained influence before engaging you risk being seen as only there because of <insert whatever it was that boosted their influence>.  Being “dragged to the table” is never a good look.

Another issue is that of being seen to pay lip service or of taking a box ticking approach to engagement, either to appease high influence stakeholders (scenario 2) or to mollify groups so they don’t coalesce around opposition (scenario 3).  I would (strongly) counsel against this.  Most stakeholders can tell the difference between genuine engagement and that done for show.  The latter will damage your reputation and make scenario 2 or 3 more likely.

So far, I have been discussing stakeholder engagement in quite a “defensive” way – avoiding opposition.  Looked at in a more positive light, engagement with all your stakeholders is also a good way to identify new and better ways of doing things.  Erica Dhawan and Saj-Nicole Joni, in their book Get Big Things Done, highlight the role of connectional intelligence in identifying and promoting new ideas and new products.  Going into stakeholder engagement with an open mind and a readiness to take an alternative view on board could be the difference between success and failure, or between basic and transformational success.

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