For Better Engagement Be Engaging!

13th May 2021

A crucial element of delivering change successfully is getting people on board. It’s usual to find that stakeholders have varying opinions and perspectives, and in many cases these perspectives may conflict.  For this reason it is usual to place a significant focus on identifying people and groups with an interest in the change, and planning how and when to engage with them. There are a whole range of tools that can be used, including the stakeholder rainbowstakeholder onionpower interest grid and many more besides. 

This type of planning can be incredibly valuable and shouldn’t be overlooked, but it is only one part of the puzzle.  It is important that we don’t fall into the trap of assuming stakeholder communication is a one-way street, and something that can be rigidly planned in advance.  Ultimately, engagement shouldn’t be something that is ‘done to’ people, it ought to be something that is created ‘with’ them.  With that in mind, it seems somewhat ironic that in many projects ‘stakeholder planning’ is conducted without key stakeholder representatives present, and without thinking much about how the change team itself might need to change. 

Being “Engaging”   

A key route to gaining stakeholder engagement is the act of engaging.  It is worth briefly exploring the meaning of that word.  In its common usage it has several meanings, two of which are: 

  • The act of ‘engaging’, a verb: this could involve going out and speaking to a key stakeholder 
  • Being ‘engaging’, an adjective: this is a property of a person, team or perhaps even an initiative itself. I’m sure you have met people in the past that you would say are ‘engaging’ in their approach  

Most engagement strategies focus on the activities, the processes and the tasks.  Much less time, if any, is spent asking the question “how will we ensure our stakeholders see us as being truly engaging? What might we need to change about our methods and processes to ensure that we work in a way that they find valuable and engaging?” 

This implies flexibility amongst the change team itself.  There is often an assumption that this team ‘owns’ the change and can implement it in just about any way that they see fit. There is then a serious danger that engagement gets reduced to handling objections and pacifying those who disagree. In situations like this there might be an engagement plan, but it quickly becomes a tick box exercise, as everyone knows the change will be steamrollered through whatever anyone says. 

Yet if we are serious about engagement, surely we need to avoid these situations and surely we need to be prepared to adapt too? 

Changing The Conversation 

To avoid these types of situations occurring, it’s important to have early conversations with relevant stakeholders. By making early contact we have the opportunity to gain an understanding of their needs, fears, and other concerns.  We effectively change the conversation from one that is framed as “here’s how we’re going to engage with you” to “how would you like to participate, and what is of interest/concern to you?”.  Early conversations will help us to validate any assumptions made during the planning phases, and will help us refine any stakeholder analysis diagrams we’ve created.  We can get concerns out on the table early so that they can be discussed and so that people have a genuine opportunity to be heard. 

We can also gather insight on how and when different stakeholders would like to be involved. By getting an understanding of their communication preferences, we can think about the techniques and approaches that would work particularly well for them.  Stakeholders that sketch out problems on a virtual whiteboard might be very appreciative if we use diagrams and models when communicating with them.  Others might prefer explanatory text. Either way, this might have an impact on the types of artefacts we create or the order in which we create them. We should be prepared to adapt the tools we use for the context, and who is involved is an important part of that context. 

Engagement Is Ongoing 

As with many other activities, stakeholder engagement is something that is ongoing.  It doesn’t even have to end when the change is implemented, relationships between people often sustain for much longer.  Whichever approaches are used, being adaptable, understanding stakeholder needs and shifting the conversation will pay dividends in the long run.  Flexibility is key, and those involved in change ought to be prepared to change too! 

by Adrian Reed, Business Analysis Expert