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2 Pernicious Misconceptions about Stakeholder Engagement – Part 2

by Amy Farley

“Who should be at the table?” is both a question that all strong collaborative efforts should continually ask and a question that often stymies forward momentum. This is the second blog in a set of two posts exploring pernicious misconceptions about stakeholder engagement we have seen among collaborative efforts. In the prior post, we explored the validity of the belief some groups have that “our decisions will be stronger if everyone participates directly in decision-making.”

In this post, we want to unpack a common statement that emerges in the planning process for many collaborative efforts: “We can’t move forward unless a representative from ______ is involved.”

Often when considering who might have significant influence over the success of their efforts, collaborative groups realize that one of the most critical stakeholder groups either currently stands as a critic or simply is not able to prioritize the effort. For example, a collaborative of organizations fighting childhood hunger may see school principals as a key stakeholder group, but the principals may see hunger as issue #62 on their already over-booked school agendas.

Sometimes groups will get stuck at this point, believing that they cannot make progress without the engagement and initial support of this challenging stakeholder group. They can fall into the “chicken vs. egg” trap we explored in a prior post: “How can we set a goal for our effort or design effective strategies without {principals} being engaged?” Rather than stalling all decision-making while the group tries unsuccessfully to engage {principals}, we push groups to transition the engagement of {principals} from an initial activity in the planning process into a part of the strategy the group will design to achieve its goals. In this way, the importance of engaging {principals} is preserved, but forward momentum is not lost.

Instead of hemming and hawing over who is missing from the effort today, instead think about ultimately who all needs to be engaged in this effort (i.e., who has the power and assets necessary to realize the change you seek?), what contribution they each need to make to achieve your goals, and how you will pursue engaging and influencing them to make that contribution.

Again, not all key stakeholders must be a part of the decision-making process and not all key stakeholders must be members of the formal collaborative group. For those stakeholders who may not be an inaugural part of the formal collaborative group but whose contribution is critical to achieving success, it’s important to develop a clear approach for how the collaborative will engage them over time, recognizing that within the group there may exist differing levels of commitment to the collaborative group’s efforts. Taking time to deeply understand these different attitudes and think about how the group should employ tactics accordingly will lead to greater momentum in the long term. As in any strong stakeholder engagement effort you must truly empathize with these stakeholders: what interests them, what motivates them, where do they spend time, who do they turn to for advice, what keeps them up at night, what does wild success look like, etc.?

There are many ways to segment stakeholder groups, but we’ve seen our partners find the skeptic-to-champion spectrum[1] most helpful and actionable (see diagram). The key message of this diagram is simple: you can’t engage everybody in the same way. The tactics and message you use with “skeptics” should be different than the tactics and messages you use with “champions.”

Skeptics Champions

Let’s explore how this chart might apply in our example of engaging principals to fight hunger in schools:

  • Some principals are already champions. These leaders believe deeply that schools have a role to play in fighting hunger and are doing everything they can to increase access to meals for their students. For these champions, the collaborative might take an approach of rallying and mobilizing them (1) to support each other and (2) to help influence their peers who are further to the left on the spectrum. These stakeholders will be your best allies in moving the work forward – they can help demonstrate early wins and strategize with you about bringing others along. The initiative will also want to ensure it is helping to support the strong efforts already being led by these principals.
  • The middle of the spectrum, probably the majority, are principals who believe that schools have a role to play in hunger but feel overwhelmed at the thought of trying to add that issue on top of everything else they have to do. For this constituency, the initiative might focus on (1) really understanding what the barriers are and then working strategically to remove them and (2) identifying clear and simple actions for them to take, such as encouraging sports coaches to tap into available government funding to provide afterschool snacks or meals.
  • All the way on the left are the skeptics who don’t think hunger is the responsibility of the schools. For this group, the approach may be more about using peer-to-peer influence. These are the people who need to be convinced about why schools should take a more active role. The die-hard skeptics may not be where you focus the majority of your attention at first, but they are a key stakeholder to consider. Ultimately you’ll want to bring them along, but you don’t want to focus all your energy there at first and risk stalling the effort. Instead, you’ll develop approaches to bring them along, and use others on the spectrum to help do this as well.

At the end of the day, we have seen that many leaders of efforts that achieve social transformation start small, find ways to achieve quick wins, and grow momentum over time. Don’t let too much debate about “who needs to be at the table” get in the way of making the quick, initial progress you’ll need to bring others along and sustain the effort.

[1] We’ve adapted this from the great thinking of the Heath Brothers in: Heath, Chip, and Dan Heath. Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard. New York: Broadway, 2010.

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Amy Farley

About Amy Farley

In her role as Associate Director, Amy Farley leads client relationships and engagements by facilitating diverse leadership teams in bold decision making and supporting the execution of transformational new ideas. 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 stronger collective solutions while increasing revenue and organizational growth. See Amy’s full bio.

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