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2 Pernicious Misconceptions about Stakeholder Engagement – Part 1

by Amy Farley

“Who should be at the table?” is a critical question that all collaborative efforts face throughout their existence. We’ve seen that the most successful collaborative efforts constantly evaluate whether the right mixture of stakeholders are working together and committed to the definition of success and supporting strategies.

This same question, though, can significantly stymie a collaborative group’s forward momentum.

When working within in an organization it’s not always easy to get the right people at the table, but you can generally determine who should be involved in a conversation by considering which combination of staff members has the appropriate perspective and level of authority to make the conversation productive and actionable.

When you move out of the organization and into the collaborative space, however, the universe of potential stakeholders becomes both opaque and complex.  Within an organization, there is a limited pool of staff members – that pool is known and understood. Whereas in a collaborative, it can often feel as though the pool of potential members is limitless and unknown.

In this context, paralyzing fear often develops around whether someone has been overlooked and whether the “right” people are involved. Collaborative groups tend to have two pernicious misconceptions when planning their approach to stakeholder engagement:

  1. “Our decisions will be stronger if everyone participates directly in decision-making.”
  2. “We can’t move forward unless a representative from ______ is involved.”

Subscribing to either one of these misconceptions can unnecessarily halt forward progress. This post will explore the first misconception and a subsequent post will examine the second.

Misconception #1: “Our decisions will be stronger if everyone participates directly in decision-making.”

The desire for absolute unanimity in decision-making among groups collaborating to solve social problems is understandable. In such settings, we naturally seek equality, understanding, and pluralism. But even finding unanimity among a small group can be a trying affair – e.g., a group of four friends deciding which movie to watch.

Seeking unanimity while making complex strategic decisions (where no “right” answer exists) among stakeholders with diverse perspectives and priorities generally leads to inaction, frustration, and confusion. In a past post, we explored different decision-making techniques that we recommend collaborative efforts consider, including ways to arrive at consensus without absolute unanimity. In this post, we want to highlight a helpful conceptual model for organizing how a collaborative group can involve different stakeholders in different ways around decision-making in order to balance the below objectives.

We believe that effective stakeholder management involves balancing three key objectives:

  • Reaching the best possible solutions
  • Generating buy-in and commitment
  • Moving efficiently toward action and results

Collaborative CirclesWe encourage collaborative efforts to balance these objectives by thinking of stakeholder engagement in terms of three concentric circles (see diagram).

This diagram underscores that not everyone needs to be engaged in the same way.

What tends to work best is empowering a small group of stakeholders to make decisions. Those stakeholders must recognize when they need other perspectives and identify individuals to engage at that time. By using tools such as focus groups, surveys, interviews and even informal conversations they can ensure they have the perspectives they need and can build buy-in across all of the different stakeholders.

We also encourage collaborative groups (1) to reflect on where they are in the lifecycle of their collaborative effort in order to be deliberate and focused in their engagement of different stakeholders and (2) to make sure they have identified the right people to be the decision-makers for the given time and context of the effort. As the effort grows and evolves, the group should revisit these determinations. For example, you might start with a small task force or steering committee making decisions around the design and planning of the initiative. Over time, the decision-making may shift such that workgroups and people on the ground are empowered to make implementation decisions while those with a more holistic view of the effort are empowered to make decisions related to strategy.

In the end, groups should recognize that different perspectives are needed at different times and for different types of decisions. Groups should be mindful and flexible to this reality and not set ultimatums about how decisions will be made and/or stringently require unanimity. Taking a more agile approach to decision-making will unlock forward progress and, if managed well, reduce frustration across the effort.

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About Amy Farley

In her role as senior consultant, Amy Farley leads client relationships and engagements, facilitates diverse leadership teams in bold decision making and supports their execution, and contributes to overall strategic firm initiatives. Amy has a unique blend of business, nonprofit, and foundation experience, with a proven record of leading cross-functional teams and driving creative solutions that have delivered increased revenue and growth. See Amy's full bio

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