Blog

Building Stakeholder Engagement

By Phil Charron on January 10, 2009

We had a spectacular conversation recently with a visitor to the Think Space. Among the topics:

What to do when you lose stakeholder engagement?

There are many elements that contribute to a successful project, and when any one of them gets derailed it can wreak havoc. One of the most frustrating things that can happen to a project team is to lose stakeholder engagement. The reverse is true as well: one of the most frustrating things that can happen to a project’s stakeholders is to lose team engagement.

So what causes people to lose interest in a project?

We’ve had the privilege to work with a client team recently that is not only engaged in the project, but has stakeholders that drive the initiative. They don’t just ask for status updates, they contribute new ideas and ask for everyone else’s ideas. They are continually looking for ways to get a relatively large and diverse project team to continue to innovate. They don’t look at the project as something with an end; they see it as something that will continue to evolve. Everyone on the team shares this mind set.

How can you get everyone on the same page?

One of the major contributors to the drive and success of this project is that the leaders of it are active learners. Not only do they maintain expertise in their own field, they watch the world of technology and user experience that continues to change around them. When they sit down with us, they speak our language and they expect us to speak theirs. Conversations often cause us to ask questions outside of our expertise and before we know it we’ve become active learners in their fields as well. Neither group would ever be able to claim expertise in the other’s specialty, but this culture of learning keeps everyone on the project engaged.

The key to this relationship?

Put simply, it’s give and take: our stakeholders acknowledge our expertise while demonstrating genuine interest in what we are doing. They defer to us when necessary and challenge us when it is critical to their goals. In exchange, they expect exactly the same from us.

So, back to our visitor’s dilemma: how do you re-engage stakeholders, and how do you stimulate their thirst for learning?

You can’t just turn the switch back on again – you need to find out why they’ve disengaged and then patiently rebuild the connections. We’re all adults here – you can’t lock someone in a room and force them to learn.

How do you make them want to learn? Maybe more importantly, how do you make them care?

This is probably one of those questions that has a different answer every time it comes up – but there are likely to be some recurring themes. When you encounter disengaged stakeholders, consider ways to pique their curiosity and entice them to contribute. I’m not talking about superficial stuff like being mysterious about things or employing riddles that sidetrack and waste time (this isn’t Dead Poets Society – we’ve got work to do here, people) – I’m talking real curiosity that stems from seeing that potential to innovate and THINK in ways that maybe haven’t been explored in that particular organization before. Combine that with a true collegial environment like the one I described above, where everyone feels valued for their expertise and not hamstrung by antiquated and unproductive hierarchies, and you just may see some real results – we certainly have.