Knowing our stakeholders’ communication preferences

14th March 2021

Every change programme, whether large or small, relies on the collaboration and buy-in of a range of different stakeholders.  From the people on the front line who are directly impacted by the change to the senior executive who is commissioning the initiative in the first place, different stakeholders will typically have very different fears, wants and aspirations.  They might be supportive and engaged or unhelpful and obstructive.  As change practitioners, it’s crucial that we engage with stakeholders at the right times in ways that work for them.  Doing so will enable us to let each stakeholder know the benefits of the changes and what this means for them. 

Of course, saying this is easier said than done.  Programme teams typically develop a stakeholder management plan which outlines how and when different stakeholder groups will be involved and how they will be kept up to date.  This crucial artefact is then revisited throughout the business change lifecycle as more is known about different stakeholder groups, and as more information about the informal power-related and political aspects emerge.  It is quite possible for someone to have seemingly low power but very high influence if they work closely with a senior decision maker. 

Whilst this type of planning often focuses on who to engage with and when, it is equally important to consider how the project will communicate and engage with different stakeholders.  There are two important aspects to consider here:  

  • What type of engagement does the programme want and need? (“What do we want from them?”) 
  • What type of engagement does the stakeholder want and need? (“What do they want from us?”) 

Get Through The Noise: Consider Communication Channel 

It is tempting to focus purely on the first of these two aspects, but this can lead to a programme team that communicates and engages in a way that doesn’t work for the stakeholders themselves. In a worst case scenario it might lead to them being completely disengaged: perhaps they receive too much information (so they tune out) or not enough (so rumours fill the information vacuum).  One challenge for most engagement efforts is to ‘get through the noise’—with a busy day-job and hundreds of e-mails to attend to, a stakeholder might find it difficult to justify spending time on what seems like a distant change programme that isn’t due to deliver any time soon.  In this article, I want to explore the role that communication and engagement channels play. 

There are many ways we can get information to, and receive feedback from, stakeholders.  Depending on the context, these might include: 

  • 1-to-1 conversations 
  • Workshops 
  • 1-to-1 e-mails 
  • Broadcast e-mails 
  • Scheduled phone calls 
  • Ad hoc phone calls 
  • ‘Town hall’ meetings 
  • Videos 
  • Forums/intranets 
  • Interactive surveys 
  • ..and many more! 

It’s tempting (and completely understandable) to gravitate towards certain types of approach for certain stakeholders.  Needing to get the executive sponsor on board? That’s probably 1-to-1.  Need to let the end users know what’s happening? Perhaps a broadcast e-mail is the traditional approach.  These are both plausible approaches in the right context but it’s important to avoid falling into autopilot. 

Imagine a situation where some of the end users are very interested in the programme and have useful contributions to make. Here it would likely make sense to blend different techniques together, perhaps soliciting interest via a survey, then holding a workshop with those interested.  These  self-selecting advocates of the change can act as ‘super users’ helping information get back informally, as well as formally.  The programme can communicate more frequently and in more detail to these individuals without risk of them tuning out (as they are genuinely interested).   

What about the executive sponsor who works on a different timezone and is struggling to make time for an initial call? If a colleague tells us they are visual-thinkers and don’t like to read lengthy documents then perhaps an initial five minute video outlining the programme and what we need from them might break the ice.  Perhaps it’ll create so much interest and intrigue that they’ll clear their diary and make time for a follow-up meeting.   After all, as consumers we’ve probably all found short YouTube ‘explainer’ videos valuable. Why should it be any different at work?  Of course, in both cases feedback should be sought from those involved to determine whether these approaches really do work for them. 

Conclusion: Innovation in Communication 

We have such a plethora of ways of communicating today, it’s important to innovate and feel unconstrained by traditions. Communication is a first step towards engagement, and by considering our stakeholders and the types of communication that works for them, helps us build rapport from the very first touchpoint.  A little bit of time spent considering the approach will pay dividends in the long run. 

by Adrian Reed, Business Analysis Expert