Unless you understand someone else’s position, ambitions and problems, your influence attempts could be much more difficult. When others don’t want to cooperate or are working against you, “conflicting agendas” are often cited as the cause. This seems to signal a barrier to success, an explanation of why you can’t get the things done – or is it just an excuse?
A more helpful attitude is that it is simply a question of different priorities. This opens up the possibility that the difference could be negotiated to achieve a win-win situation, while also removing the emotion (well, much of it at least!). You are not in conflict with others – you’ve just got different priorities at the moment (well, you may be in actual conflict, but often it’s a figment of your imagination).
Most of the difficulties arise because of lack of awareness of what the other person has on their list of priorities. Unless you know what they want, how can you negotiate? Until you know what they are trying to “win” you cannot come up with an innovative idea which can enable you both to “win”. Instead, you are just guessing – or more likely, just pitching your ideas and hoping they’ll be accepted.
Agendas come in two main types, professional and personal. The professional agenda is all the work-related priorities: performance targets, job descriptions, project plans, etc. Some are often visible or easily revealed with a question or two, so easy to work with. More difficult to spot are the subtle influences on the professional agenda. A profit warning can put unseen pressures on key people in the organisation, which may not be openly talked about. Sometimes, the way of teasing this out is to look for the drivers behind the public or professional agenda. You need to dig deeper and look around more corners to see what is really making things happen.
Personal agendas are much more difficult to work out. Items here include career goals, bonus aspirations, or even settling old scores and getting revenge! Without a good relationship with the individual stakeholder, a high degree of intelligent guessing is required. It may mean you have to seek insights from people in your network and consider recent history and behaviour patterns. However, any attention you put towards uncovering the personal agenda will yield big results, because for many people the personal agenda is their key driver. Of course, they will never admit to being driven by personal gain or greed – but there is a bit of that in all of us, isn’t there?
Focus on the most important stakeholder and come back and analyse others when you think it will help unblock an issue or accelerate your progress. What do you think their agenda is?
- What things do they tend to focus on?
- What are they avoiding?
- Who is putting them under pressure and why?
- What are their goals and ambitions?
- Who are their key customers?
- Key suppliers?
- What problems are they struggling with right now?
- How is their career progressing?
- Consider the people who they might view as their stakeholders – how are they doing?
- What are they proud of?
- Do they struggle to get the resources they need?
- What do they enjoy doing the most?
Quite often, I hear clients replying to these questions with a simple “I don’t know.” Sorry, that’s not good enough in my book. Of course it is difficult, that’s why so few people do it. But it is extremely important if you want to become proficient at managing your stakeholders.
If you are struggling to determine a stakeholder’s agenda, try some of these ideas…
- Guess. Yes, that’s right, go on, have a guess. You may be surprised how close you might be. Once you’ve guessed, do some detective work to find out if you are on the right lines.
- Pretend. This is not a technique for everyone – but try it before you dismiss it! During a quiet moment when nobody is looking, sit in your chair the way your stakeholder might sit. Imagine you are your stakeholder. What might he/she be thinking about their work? What problems might be playing on their mind? How might they react to different people and why? Go on, give it a go!
- Ask them. You never know, they might just tell you. It seems to me that we much prefer to guess than ask. (This does not conflict with my suggestion earlier, because a guess is still better than “I don’t know.”)
Whatever you are coming up with, even if they have told you specifically, will vary in probability. Clearly, if they have told you and you have a high level of trust between you, it is a high probability that it is correct. The more guessing you are doing, the lower the probability that you are right. Talking to others always increases the accuracy (well, almost always!).
Take a moment now to write down the top priorities (agenda) for the stakeholder you have been thinking about. Try to get at least three in each column. Any spaces should be filled after a bit more detective work!
Assuming you have a reasonable feel for their agenda, you can now start to compare it with your own. I’ll build on this in the later chapters; but while we’re here it is important to remember that in the cut and thrust of organisational life agendas are bound to conflict. This is natural and, in fact, something to be welcomed. Without this dynamic, the organisation as a whole will suffer because the competing agendas stretch the overall performance – survival of the fittest? As I said at the beginning of the chapter, conflict is probably the wrong notion to have here, so let’s revert back to priorities.
Pause for a moment and reflect on your answers to the questions below in relation to the stakeholder you’ve just been analysing…
- How does your agenda compare with theirs?
- What have your agendas got in common?
- What is definitely different about your agendas?
- How can you expect your respective agendas to change over the coming months?
- Could you adapt or reposition your agenda to move closer to your stakeholders?
- Should their agenda change to incorporate yours?
The insights you are picking up here will be extremely useful in the next step of the Stakeholder Influence Process, as you start to analyse the level of interest and agreement they have in what you are seeking to achieve. However, the biggest win comes from the action it inspires to position your plans in their agenda. If you can find creative and innovative ways of helping them to make progress on their agenda while also making progress on your own – you’ll be a winner for sure!