August 25, 2014

Selena McLachlan

Most Commonly Made Mistakes in Stakeholder Engagement

Google ‘how-to’ on just about every topic and you’ll get an endless list of articles and posts telling you what TO do. Knowing this will set you down the right path, but equally as important, knowing what NOT to do will keep you from going down that slippery (and dangerous) slope. When it comes to effective community engagement, we’ve learned the hard way about what works, and what doesn’t. And surprisingly, some of the tactics that don’t work aren’t as obvious as one might think.

Here are five slippery slopes to avoid:

1. Making a decision that impacts your stakeholders, without gaining their buy-in.

This one may be obvious, but a good reminder that the biggest mistake in making decisions that will impact your stakeholders, is not involving them in the process. At ThoughtExchange, we believe that anyone impacted by a decision, should be able to have input into it. This is not about relinquishing your ability to lead, but rather strengthening it. We take this fundamental engagement practice so seriously, that we don’t just adhere to it with our customer engagements, but internally here with our employees as well.

Research and experience have demonstrated time and again that any kind of change or critical decision-making process is more likely to succeed with support. We all know that. But what isn’t so widely understood is that having input in a decision often produces support – even when the final decision or direction isn’t the one chosen by your stakeholders. Likely we can all remember a time when we were asked for input on a decision that would affect us, that didn’t go our way. And likewise, a decision that was made when we weren’t asked at all. I think we can all agree that the latter was a much harder pill to swallow.

2. Failing to make stakeholder/community engagement a top priority.

Like everything else on your ‘to-do’ list, if it’s not a top priority, it will quickly land on your ‘some-day’ list. Leaders who make engagement a priority inspire confidence, gain critical buy-in and maintain the support of their stakeholder community. Engage early, engage well, and engage often.

A fail-safe way to preventing engagement from sliding down your to-do list, is to make it a systematic, routine part of how you conduct your day-to-day business and go about making decisions. Take a moment to ask yourself, “who will this decision impact and what is the most effective way to involve them in the process, given the time and resources I have available?”.

3. Looking at the issue through your eyes.

This is a common mistake that can easily occur at the onset of an engagement process, with even the best intentions in mind. We’re hard-wired to view things through our own eyes, and as a result, even good leaders can sometimes make the wrong assumptions about how a decision will impact their stakeholders; based on their own unique lens of the world and what they believe to be true. This isn’t a character flaw, but rather human nature. As leaders, we often have a unique and even privileged view of an issue. What’s important to remember though, is this isn’t the only view.

Stakeholder mapping – which simply stated is the process of identifying and categorizing all your unique stakeholder groups – is a proven method used by successful leaders who recognize that there are many perspectives of an issue, problem or even a solution. They know that by engaging their diverse community early on in the process – even inviting the community to help identify and define the issue – allows them to see through many eyes. In fact, true insight may be defined as being able to view an issue (or opportunity) from as diverse a group as possible.

4. Allowing the vocal few to dominate.

One of the many roles of a leader is ensuring that equal time and energy is allotted to each group or perspective. And while you can’t force people to participate, collaborative leaders have an inherent responsibility to ensure that reasonable measures are taken to remove barriers to engagement. In small engagements this may mean ensuring that more introverted or less confident participants get a chance to present their ideas in a way that feels safe and comfortable. When trying to engage larger and diverse groups, this most often means using technology to level the playing field.

With widespread internet usage permeating the country, online engagement increasingly offers one of the most effective (and cost efficient) ways to increase participation, while providing a safe place to share thoughts and ideas. So while methods like town hall meetings have their place, they often unintentionally alienate the masses of stakeholders, in favour of providing a grand podium for the few who can’t wait to get hold of the mic. Incidentally, this minority often represents the extreme opposite “poles” of an issue, leaving out the middle-majority.

5. Believing that what’s said the most, is also most important.

This is the last, but definitely not the least significant mistake made. Let’s say you pose a question to your stakeholder community and you hear one response repeated by many of your stakeholders. Repetition must mean it is important. Correct? Actually, we’ve found that is not true. In fact, through years of conducting stakeholder engagements where stakeholders prioritize the importance of the responses of each other, it’s not uncommon to see a unique concern originally raised by a handful of members quickly become a very important issue for the broader group.

To illustrate how easily this can happen, let’s use a trivial topic like ice cream. Before ordering ice cream for your next staff picnic, you decide to ask people what their favourite flavour is. The first five people you ask say: “chocolate”. So it would be natural to think that chocolate represents the most important flavour to order for the group. But then during the process one of your staff loudly says “salted-caramel” and another says “Italian espresso-flake gelato”. The people who said “chocolate” overhear… Now suddenly “chocolate” is not their favourite any longer! Maybe espresso flake is #1, salted caramel is #2 and chocolate is far down the list.

It turns out “chocolate” was just the first thing that came to mind but through the process of considering what others had to say, other unique ideas were valued by the group as a whole. It’s easy to understand how our thoughts and ideas can evolve when we hear from the diverse perspective of others. Of course this isn’t a big deal when ordering ice cream, but it’s a potentially fatal mistake when using feedback to make significant decisions that impact your organization and its stakeholders.

Perhaps we’ve been conditioned to believe the most important issue is the one voiced the most from our experience with traditional quantitative surveys. Regardless of why, many leaders continue to make this mistake when trying to engage their communities.

So what’s the solution? The one we’ve seen the most success with is employing a process that exposes your stakeholders to the thoughts and concerns of the broader group, and then enables them to indicate those that resonate the most with them.

Here at ThoughtExchange we know from experience that past efforts (and mistakes) reveal the best path forward. Knowing what the most commonly made mistakes are when it comes to stakeholder engagement, will allow you to successfully navigate around them.

What are you doing to ensure that your stakeholder engagement efforts don’t veer down that slippery slope?

Selena McLachlan

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