Stakeholder engagement is a critical factor in the success of business change, especially business transformations, which may require significant cultural change. Business transformation typically involves people, process and systems changes which need to be delivered in order to produce a step change within the business. The design of effective processes and application of appropriate technology is not enough to ensure success. Insufficient acceptance and adoption of the new processes, arising from inadequate engagement of stakeholders, is a common cause of transformation failures.
The same is true for public sector transformation, whether internally within public and civil organisations or in pursuit of broader civil and social reforms.
Much of the published literature on stakeholder engagement deals with the introduction of sustainable engagement programmes in public, private and civil society organisations – with strong emphasis on accountability, particularly democratic accountability – and is applicable to the integration of stakeholder engagement with corporate governance, strategy and operations. Readers who are interested in this context might consult the AA1000 Stakeholder Engagement Standard.
This article is directed at the tactical application of stakeholder engagement within a specific project or programme – a pragmatic approach to getting stakeholders on board, and ensuring the desired outcomes are achieved.
The overall aim of the engagement process is to achieve the desired outcomes. The desired outcomes should, therefore, always be at the forefront of planning an engagement process. They need to be clearly stated – setting out exactly what is sought from the proposed changes in process, technology, etc. The delivery of the technology, the process and the process outputs themselves are not the main focus, which must be on the achievement of the outcomes. This enables some latitude in determining how the outcomes are achieved – what technology, process and process outputs are used – so that stakeholders have a sense of purpose.
To engage stakeholders fully there are 7 areas we address. It is important to note that these are not sequential steps, although the emphasis moves, with the passage of time, from the lower to the higher-numbered items in the following list :
Ensuring sponsorship for the change – in business, at a senior executive level from both internal ‘supplier’ and ‘customer’ perspectives – in public life, from institutional heads representing providers and receivers of services. Often, work needs to be done in advance to define the scope and context of the engagement in order to gain commitment to the engagement programme.
Involving the right people in the design and implementation of changes, to make sure the right changes are made – so ensuring their effectiveness. Also that no stakeholder group is inadvertently or intentionally excluded – so ensuring legitimacy. And, at the outset, involving the right people in the design of the engagement plan itself.
Seek active participation. Consultation is good but programmes where the deliverables are ‘done to’ or ‘done for’ the stakeholders are less likely to lead to successful outcome than if they are (in part) ‘done by’ stakeholders.
Assessing and addressing how the changes will affect people. ‘Sweeping issues under the carpet’ is a frequent cause of failure, yet often the issues present an opportunity to increase stakeholder engagement, by getting them to participate in finding or developing solutions.
Telling everyone who’s affected about the changes… and listening. Early communication the context in which the stakeholder engagement is taking place is important:
- for sponsors, a common understanding of context and purpose ensures consistent leadership;
- for other stakeholders to align participants, clarify their roles, and ensure the process is responsive to their needs.
Getting people ready for the changes, by ensuring they have the right information, training and help. The timing and resources required are often underestimated but the requirements can be reduced by the planned involvement of key stakeholders.
Ensuring people understand and accept their responsibilities, and are held accountable. Unambiguous definition of participants’ roles is a pre-requisite.
Addressing resistance; in most cases revisiting 1-6 above, but occasionally requiring the removal of negative influences. Former US Secretary of State, Colin Powell said “The good followers know who the bad followers are, and they are waiting for you to do something about it.” I agree. However, the necessity to remove a significant number of negative people usually indicates a failure in design, planning or management. Mass removal of protesters, and their replacement by sycophants, is a recipe for disaster.
This is not an exclusive list. Additional political and organisational issues will need attention, depending on the nature of the changes.
I opened by saying that stakeholder engagement is a critical factor in the success of business change. It seems to have become fashionable to put stakeholder engagement at the pinnacle of the business change agenda – suggesting that change management is purely about stakeholder engagement – as if changing the organisation and improving stakeholder engagement will somehow transform the business. Real business change is not achieved by changing the organisation structure. Effective process is a pre-requisite. W. Edwards Deming said “If you can’t describe what you are doing as a process, you don’t know what you are doing” (engaged or not). Stakeholder engagement helps the design of good processes, ensures their effective operation, and encourages personal commitments to deliver desired outcomes.
The AA1000 Stakeholder Engagement Standard (AA1000SES), AccountAbility – provides a framework to help organisations ensure stakeholder engagement processes are purpose driven, robust and deliver results.
A Road Map to Meaningful Engagement, Doughty Centre, Cranfield School of Management – aims to provide an understanding of, and practical tips for, successful stakeholder engagement. Author: Neil Jeffery – July 2009
Video: General Colin Powell, former US Secretary of State speaks about leadership.
- Overcoming obstacles to successful change programmes
- Written in the context of procurement change programmes, but relevant to any change project or programme: Are your Procurement stakeholders champions or saboteurs?