A lot of people confuse stakeholder engagement with stakeholder buy-in. True engagement continues long after you have tacit agreement for whatever you are pushing. It’s this constant engagement that often spells the difference between success and compromised achievements.
Most people, whether managers or communicators, know that getting stakeholders on board early in the process is ideal: if people feel part of the decision-making process, they are more likely to get behind the activity; while striking initial compromise can eliminate the kind of hurdles that arise during the process.
All this good work, however, is undone if people then feel they are been railroaded, ignored or just plain forgotten. Having an on-going dialogue and encouraging active involvement and participation is vital.
Take a typical communication project.
The stakeholder buy-in approach will typically see the communicator get top-level backing before a broad-brush approach is taken toward affected parties – internally and externally. This initial contact will be followed up with meetings or workshops to iron out any concerns and one-on-one discussions with potential “hold outs” to secure consensus.
It’s mainly about gaining “approval” by managing expectations and stroking egos (yes, that’s a wide sweeping statement but I think a lot of readers will recognise the process).
The communicator then puts a plan in place and executes it, with barely a second thought to stakeholders until problems arise. It’s not surprising that when stakeholders are next consulted, in the evaluation phase, the report card is not that flattering, from both outcome and relationship perspectives.
Compare and contrast to the stakeholder engagement approach.
Initial buy-in is still needed but with an engagement model the emphasis is not on gaining “sign-off” but creating a project that takes into account the requirements of the stakeholders and their own reality in terms of execution.
Rather than stepping in to the stakeholder’s environment on the false assumption the initial buy-in grants authority, engagers work with stakeholders, seeking advice and adapting to that advice as needed:
- They provide regular feedback and updates to stakeholders to report progress as a way of reinforcing positive behaviour and building morale.
- They meet regularly with stakeholders to discuss the on-going work and the coming phases to find ways it can be accommodated within the individual stakeholder’s own priorities.
- They seek feedback to adapt and fine-tune approaches to build on best practice and learn from mistakes, so the project proceeds more smoothly.
- They elicit heads-up in terms of issues or concerns that have or could create negative experiences or perceptions and then address these before they undermine the rest of the project.
- They celebrate milestones and breakthroughs, highlighting the success of others as a way of building a tighter team.
- And they include stakeholders in reviews and evaluation, during the project and when it’s complete, to create transparency and through that trust and respect.
This way, stakeholders become an active part of the project and are invested in its success. The project is no longer an action imposed by management or the communication function, but an activity that has real meaning and benefit to them.
Suddenly your project is more easily accommodated, hurdles disappear, complaints are minimised, and outcomes are optimised. It’s a process that takes time and commitment, but one that is a win-win in environments where no one has enough time or resources for their own needs, let alone yours.