By Andrew Moore, COO, DAV Management

It might be a little prosaic to say but Stakeholder engagement is undeniably a critical element of every project and programme yet it is often poorly understood and frequently patchy in terms of its execution. Few organisations give stakeholder engagement the time and attention it requires. Which is a bit of a worry, since only the very brave or foolhardy would guarantee the success of a programme at the outset, but you can almost certainly guarantee failure if stakeholder engagement is badly executed.

As a critical success factor, Stakeholder engagement sits alongside other essentials such as clear scope, compelling business case and effective leadership, to name a few. It should be an iterative, ever present aspect of a programme, which binds all stakeholders together with a shared vision and a common purpose. Let’s consider this in the context of business change. As anyone who has been through this will know, it’s hard to achieve, with more people, processes and technology challenges than you can shake a stick at. However, more often than not, it’s the people element that really liberates the wheel from the cart – and preventing this is where stakeholder engagement really comes into its own.

It is crucial that all stakeholders are on the same page, that people understand what’s expected of them and that everyone’s expectations about the programme’s scope, objectives and outcomes are aligned. In my experience, launching into a programme without doing your homework with stakeholders is a recipe for disaster. You can't just travel in hope. Hard questions have to be asked and, from a programme sponsor and manager’s perspective, you’ve got to know that stakeholders are on board and committed to making the programme a success. You also need to understand the perspectives of each stakeholder and what success looks like to them, so you can manage expectations accordingly.
Effective, two way communication is at the heart of this and this is where the process tends to get patchy. I’ve witnessed plenty of programmes where there’s a blizzard of communication in the early stages, albeit too frequently of the outbound variety, only to fall away as the pace of the programme gathers.

Why does this happen? I think this is because stakeholder engagement falls subject to what we’ve previously described as ‘management by osmosis’ whereby programme leaders believe it will just happen, rather than needing a sustained focus. Or sometimes I think it’s seen by some programme managers as something that can be ‘squeezed’ as the day to day operational pressures of the programme begin to build. Sadly, it’s also not unusual for senior business leaders to be dismissive of stakeholder engagement activity as ‘consultancy padding’ on a programme. This is often because the person leading the programme is not professionally assertive enough to challenge business stakeholders, binding them into the initiative and motivating them to deliver what is required for the programme to be successful. This is typically the case with senior level stakeholders, who can be difficult to pin down from a time and responsibility perspective and often have different agendas when it comes to programmes of change.

This comes back to my earlier point about the people elements and how these can make or break a business change programme. In this context, it’s also about understanding that stakeholders, at all levels, will have reservations, fears, anxieties, mistrust, pre-conceived ideas and resistance when it comes to change. The key is getting it all out on the table. People need to be consulted and to have the opportunity to feed through their contribution to the programme, helping to shape the programme and the decisions that are made. They need to ‘feel’ engaged, not told they have ‘been’ engaged.

Communication is the recurring theme here and the process needs to be two-way because some of the messages that the programme needs to deliver won’t be easy. Change might be right for the business but it is rarely universally good for all the people in it. There will always be winners and losers in a change process. Whilst it may be difficult to deliver some of these messages to people in the business, it has to be done and experience shows that the level of engagement is higher when they are acknowledged and dealt with openly and with sensitivity. Change comes from within and the higher the level of engagement the more successful it is likely to be.

Having said all that, at the end of the day stakeholder engagement isn’t rocket science – it’s a common sense approach to sustained communication, underpinned with a solid commitment to getting the best out of people. There are a number of tried and tested techniques that can be adopted to support the process, here are the key aspects to get you focused in the right direction:

Clearly identify key stakeholders and stakeholder groups
Analyse each group so you have a clear understanding of:
- Their interests, expectations, issues and needs
- How they will influence and be impacted by, the programme
Develop key stakeholder messages and the communication channels that you will use to reach out to stakeholders
Build these into a stakeholder communication plan that not only defines how you will communicate with each category of stakeholder, but also establishes your feedback loop. After all the plan isn’t a one-time exercise, it will need to be an ever-present, two-way commitment throughout the programme’s lifecycle.

If you do this with diligence and skill you will have a mechanism embedded in the programme that gives you reliable and effective communication with all the stakeholders who will both influence and be impacted by the programme. This will then give you a platform to:

Provide a single, consistent view of the programme aims and objectives
Promote key messages from the programme
Address stakeholder issues, concerns and anxieties
Actively encourage dialogue with stakeholders to promote a sense of inclusion and demonstrate that feedback provided is influencing the programme
Gauge the organisations readiness for change
Head off the threat of stakeholder disengagement and secure their long-term commitment to the programme.

The bottom line is that if you follow these techniques you will have created a stakeholder engagement structure that will seriously stack the odds of success in your favour.