We’ve been using a consistent approach to helping our clients manage their stakeholders strategically for over eight years now. We have seen what works and what doesn’t work. Based on our extensive experience in this topic, we have evolved the original approach and revised the model to ensure that the process is optimised. This article explains…
- Why we removed Enigmas and Fence-sitters.
- Changing the dimension of Trust.
- Two critical and simple things to remember when managing your stakeholders.
- Additional considerations on the Agreement Dimension.
- Eight best practise suggestions.
Managing your stakeholders proactively is absolutely critical to becoming more influential. For the last 8 years I have favoured an approach based on the work of Peter Block which plots people on the dimensions of Agreement and Trust (see other articles). In my view this remains a highly practical tool. I’ve helped thousands of people to apply this over the last few years and I know it has helped. The purpose of this article is to share with you some of the things I have learned and a few ideas on how you can apply it to greater effect and gain even more practical benefit, and to show why we are updating this model for managing our stakeholders (this has now been incorporated into How to Manage Your Stakeholders).
Two Simple and Critical Principles
The most successful client takes a piece of paper and draws out the Strategic Stakeholder Model to record their stakeholder positions. This simple physical act has surprising benefits in helping to land practical action. One remote coaching client summed it up – “I could have intellectualised about the position of Joe for weeks, yet being forced to hold a pen and decide which side of the line to place him brought forward some incredible new insights in minutes!”
Additionally, if you’ve got a record you can review it more frequently. In my opinion, if you are not writing it down on the model and are not reviewing it regularly, you are unlikely to be effective at managing your stakeholders.
The Agreement Dimension
In practice this dimension works really well in two ways. Firstly, it forces you to be specific. Unless you can precisely describe what you want people to agree with, how can you assess if they agree? So many people I have worked with start with a vague aim – such as they want people to support their project. As a coach, challenging them to be more specific helps them to determine what success looks like and automatically makes it more achievable. I recall one director who got more specific. He approached the CEO to seek agreement. The response was “oh of course, no problem – I thought you wanted …” Which is a good example of closing the assumption gap which we all fall into at times!
Secondly, this dimension puts the focus on successfully achieving a stakeholder’s agreement. I know it may sound obvious, but so often I come across people who are a little reticent of asking – perhaps fearing rejection. Once focused you have to get moving and then you will notice another interesting aspect to this dimension – agreement is very closely related to interest and activity. The stronger the agreement, the more the stakeholder is likely to gain from your success, and therefore, the more likely they will be actively working on your behalf. The opposite is also true!
The Trust/Relationship Dimension
This continues to be a strong differentiator in my favoured approach, which is absent from most other stakeholder management models. The more I work with this dimension, the more convinced I am of the practical and longer term benefit that can be gained by the focus it brings. However, I have realised that it misses a few important points which are helpful to consider. Consequently I have renamed it the Relationship Dimension. Trust is absolutely critical to successful relationships but it is not the whole story. In addition, you need to think about openness and frequency of contact, which will have a marked impact on your capability to influence.
Openness: The degree to which someone is prepared to disclose their thinking and insights makes a big difference in a relationship. High trust does not necessarily equal high disclosure; merely that when something is disclosed it is believed, or when they offer to do something, they will do it. If you want to maximise the potential of a relationship you will need to work towards opening it up more so that you can start exchanging more candid information as you work together and help each other. The more closed a relationship, the more likely it is that trust will be compromised.
Frequency: The other aspect which is critical in relationships is the regularity with which you interact. You can have very open and trusting relationships, however, if you rarely meet then it will inevitably start to weaken. If you only meet at the quarterly governance committee session you could be missing valuable opportunities to share useful information. Regular contact may well cause the relationship to move into friendship territory too!
Fence-sitters and Enigmas
In Block’s original work he observed that we often encounter people who are undecided about our course of action. He noted that often this is a psychological disposition and that generally, once a fence-sitter, always a fence-sitter. I don’t think this is either helpful or practical.
As people are deciding to agree or disagree with what you are hoping to achieve, it is reasonable for them to take their time, gather the information they need, and seek the counsel of others. This is natural and useful. Block positioned this group on the low trust side of the grid; however in reality you can have fence-sitters between any of the central lines.
In many ways this was why the Enigma ellipse was first used: to cater for those we could not position on the map. The benefit of identifying these people is massive. Just because you don’t know someone, or have yet to engage with them, does not mean they are powerless to assist or resist you. Often one of the biggest gains from this approach to managing stakeholders is moving beyond the oft seen tendency to manage the nearest, best known, or most convenient people, rather than the people that should be engaged. Yet the ellipse often got in the way. Sometimes people are not enigmas, it is known with confidence that they sit impartially in the middle!
So to enhance the practicality of the model, the revised approach removes the ellipse and the fence-sitters. To retain the benefits gained from provoking thinking, the four quadrants have now been separated by the grey area (the unknown). Now we can relax and just put people in the grey area while we go and find out for sure where they should be!