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Comms Principle #2: It’s Stakeholder, not Steakholder

Melanie Griffith in 'Working Girl'. Photo: 20th Century Fox

Melanie Griffith in ‘Working Girl’. Photo: 20th Century Fox

In the 1988 movie ‘Working Girl’, Alec Baldwin delivers an ultimatum to Melanie Griffith, to which he receives the response “I am not steak – you can’t just order me.”

I’m sure the line was never meant to be relevant to corporate communications, but I’ve never found one that better sums up the manner in which some communications strategies rely on beating their audience into submission.

In the past (and I mean the long distant past), leadership styles were significantly more authoritarian than they are today.  Raising issues with management direction could have been a career decision.  And in some companies this can still be the case, although thankfully it is now the exception rather than the rule.

Today’s Management Boards have recognized that simply mandating a change does not ensure its successful delivery.  While everyone may pay lip-service to the objective the fact remains that people are, in general, very resistant to change.

Daniel Burrus

Daniel Burrus – Collaboration vs. Cooperation

When proposing a program of strategic change, one of the first things that needs to be appreciated is the fact that dragging people towards an objective is not nearly as effective as having them gravitate towards it.

One of my favorite bloggers, Daniel Burrus, wrote an interesting piece on LinkedIn a few weeks ago that clearly articulated the difference between collaboration and cooperation, and pointed out that people confuse the two. The key distinction he makes is worth repeating here:

“Cooperation is based on a scarcity mindset; it’s about protecting and defending your piece of the pie.  Collaboration is based on an abundance mindset, working together to create a bigger pie for all”.

Change means uncertainty - people don't like uncertainty

Change means uncertainty –
and people don’t like uncertainty

Seems obvious, doesn’t it?  But where Change Management activities are concerned, it’s one of those key distinctions that tend to fall by the wayside in the headlong rush to build consensus and move forward. The problem of course is that if you settle merely for stakeholder cooperation, everything you build thereafter will be less stable and the consensus is liable to develop cracks.  If you want to build on a solid foundation, you need your stakeholders to want what you want.  In order to do this they have to share your vision, not just execute it.

And that, when all is said and done, is the tough bit.  How do you get a group of stakeholders not just to move in the same direction, but to want to move in the same direction and to encourage others to come with them?

Your new strategic direction may promise inescapable benefits for the organization, but it may also have a dramatic impact of a vast number of careers.  It may require employees to learn new skills, or new ways of working.  It may require changes in their reporting lines or the manner in which they are remunerated.  Suppliers or customers may be required to work with you in new ways (which can be tricky to enforce with suppliers, and next to impossible with customers).  It may also mean that some existing roles become redundant, in which case having your stakeholders believe that as one door closes several others will open is of critical importance.

There will undoubtedly be personal issues that shape the opinions of stakeholders both inside and outside your organization, and you will need to understand them (something I’ll come back to in a future post), but your first priority should be to understand where everyone fits, both in terms of how they can impact the project and how they are impacted by it.  This is the essence of Stakeholder Segmentation.

A typical stakeholder map for an internal change program

A typical stakeholder map for an internal change program

A large group of stakeholders can be segmented in a number of ways, but the key requirements are to understand where they fit in terms of reporting and role, to understand their level of seniority or influence, and to understand the likely impact of the project on their day job or, for external stakeholders, their business.

Getting the names of all these stakeholders, their responsibilities and other key information is not a difficult task, but it is time consuming and unfortunately there is no way around it.

Existing org charts will take you some of the way there, as will mailing lists, but the remainder will largely be grunt work – talking to colleagues, making phone calls, sharing iterations of the list and seeking feedback until such time as you can be sure it is broadly complete. There will always be one or two that you miss, but they will become apparent as soon as the comms flow starts.

With the list in place, you can start to determine what kind of communications detail will be required for each audience.  Your IT stakeholders will likely require very different information that that required by your marketers, or by HR, or your suppliers, and while you may be able to use some of the communications materials across all stakeholder groups, each group should feel that the materials you develop have something in it for them.  Remember, the more information that does not apply specifically to a particular stakeholder, the less likely that stakeholder is to read it.  Management may have mandated the change, but getting the stakeholders to pay attention, understand and actively engage will be on you.

Prince2 Project Management structure

Prince2 Project Management structure

If you need to go to the length of producing modular communications material, which is entirely possible, you will need to start building relationships with the experts in your project team and project board.

The Project Manager is always a good place to start, and he/she will be able to describe the skill sets available to help you develop the detail that the communication may require.  In addition, your project’s Senior User or Senior Supplier will be able to help you be aware of some of the key challenges that exist, both in terms of the benefits that are expected and the challenges of implementation. I should probably point out here that I am using Prince2 project management structure, since that is what I was trained in, but other Project Management methodologies encompass similar roles.

This will be the point at which some sensitivities exist, as you will also have to segment your stakeholders based on perceived level of support and influence.  Those who support the activity may be able to become active in influencing others, but you will need their support to be on message because not only do you want them to communicate correctly and not start any unnecessary rumors in motion, but also you want them to bring you feedback so that any level of resistance apparent in initial discussions can be addressed while it is still just a risk, rather than waiting until it becomes an issue.

There will invariably be certain key stakeholders who are skeptical or hostile.  It is particularly important to highlight who they are at an early stage, particularly if they have a level of seniority that could delay or undermine the project, or if they have expertise that is held in high regard by other stakeholders.  A bit of extra time or effort spent on syndicating objectives with this group of individuals, and sounding them out for objections or concerns will pay dividends in the long term.

Assign responsibilities for covering key stakeholders

Assign responsibilities for covering key stakeholders

In order to be certain of their views and to encourage their positive engagement, you may need to use “man defense” rather than relying on “zone defense”, meaning they will need to be approached on an individual basis, ideally by someone within or close to the project, and with whom they have a good relationship.

This ‘relationship owner’ takes responsibility for representing the details correctly, engaging frequently to secure feedback, and reporting the substance of any resistance back to the center.

This is unfortunately quite a labor intensive way of engaging (to ensure just one individual is in possession of all the facts, and that his or her opinions are accurately recorded), but in a small number of cases you may find there is no substitute for it, and even that it can be more efficient.

Finally, while it is important to know what your stakeholders think, it is just as important that they know you know and that they have confidence that their concerns are being taken seriously.

There is only one thing worse than being confronted with a change you don’t agree with, or not knowing who to talk to and how to raise concerns, and that is to talk to someone and raise concerns and never hear anything about it again.  If this happens, you’ve taken a key step towards getting your stakeholders engaged and then dropped the ball by not letting them know that you’ve heard their concerns, that you’ve shared them with the relevant people and that an answer is being developed.  In short, you’ve given the impression that their views are irrelevant.

If you don’t have an answer, don’t bullshit them.  They will almost certainly find out and when they do you will have gone 90% of the way towards losing their trust forever.  Tell them you don’t know, then go and find out what the answer is.  Unless you’re dealing with a stakeholder who has a particularly poisonous agenda (and they do exist), you will gain points for honesty and collaboration far more often than you will lose them for being “unprepared”.

Is this all there is to stakeholder management?  Of course not but this is a blog not a book, and following these basic steps will at very least move you in the right direction.

I’ll cover more on the subject of establishing a dialogue with your stakeholders in Comms Principle #3.

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Posted by on January 15, 2013 in Change Management, Communications

 

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Comms Principle #1: If it Ain’t Broke…

The world is overloaded with information

Information overload and channel multiplicity – how do you get your message heard through the background noise?

How do you consume information?  And why?

Well, if you’re anything like me, you used to read a lot of newspapers, a few magazines. You watched the TV news and perhaps listened to the radio.  And when you found something that was of particular interest, maybe you bought a book. And why? Because you had an interest in the subjects being discussed.  And of course in the modern world a plethora of other ways exist to receive, retrieve and consume information, with more seemingly added every month.

In business communications however, and particularly as it relates to Change Management, there are a host of other, more specific reasons.  Some people want to develop professionally and are actively looking to be educated about a particular subject.  Others may be developing a new strategy and are looking for examples, precedents and case histories.  While still others are quite happy with the status quo, but are faced with a need to change ways of working or learn new skills because of a new strategic business imperative.

As a Communications Manager, you have to cater to all the requirements of this diverse audience.  And when I say cater to them, I do not mean send them a few emails, the occasional powerpoint slide and a couple of spreadsheets.  If it were that easy I wouldn’t be writing this, but unfortunately that’s often exactly how easy people think it is, and what some people consider to be a perfectly reasonable Comms approach.

Interconnected people, different requirements

Interconnected people, different requirements

But let’s consider a worst case scenario.  Let’s imagine you have to provide compelling and accessible communications about a new change project to an audience of 500 people – people in different roles, in different offices and maybe even in different countries.  The change in question has been tried before in a previous project, and failed.  Everyone spent a lot of time on it, and the months of effort delivered nothing.  In fact, those that worked on the project – and that includes you – are considered to have failed, and everyone has a view on why.  There is now an atmosphere of mistrust about the new project.  Your audience is at best ambivalent and, even worse, there are 30 or 40 people in your key stakeholder group who are actively hostile to any further innovation or change activity in this area.  Many of these doubters have the expertise, the influence, the seniority to derail the project.

Now let’s throw out the term “worst case scenario”, because that’s the way most business change projects begin.  So, you need to write and run a Comms strategy that takes account of all these complicating factors.

Before you even begin getting your head around the information that needs to be communicated, the best way to move forward is to step back.

Step back and think about a handful of Comms principles that will not only make writing the strategy easier, but will also improve the likelihood of success, the retention of the messages and the engagement level of your stakeholders.

It is these key principles that I will be blogging about over the next several posts, taking a single facet at a time.  I’ll be talking about stakeholder mapping, the importance of dialogue, developing a multi-faceted comms approach, engaging senior management, and translating strategy into execution.  But I’m going to start with what I consider to be the most important enabler of all – that of channel selection.

Channel selection - likely the most critical part of a communications strategy

Channel selection – likely the most critical enabler of a sound communications strategy

When I started this post, I asked how you consumed information.  It was not an idle or rhetorical question.  Every project will be different, and the selection of the appropriate comms channels will be one of the most important decisions you will be faced with.

I have seen, on numerous occasions, communications activities fail because a comms strategy tried to force a method of communication down the throats of stakeholders.  Expensive new brochures have been produced, databases set up, swathes of email sent out with slides, spreadsheets, gantt charts attached.  Then three months later the Project Board members scratch their collective heads as the Comms Manager is forced to admit that despite all this activity, many stakeholders don’t know what the objectives are, don’t know where to get more information, don’t agree with the information they have received, and do not support the project.

And the simple reason for this is that the Comms Strategy never took account of the relationships that exist, the venues that were already available.  Instead, the strategy drove activity in a manner that required stakeholders to learn the methods of communicating before learning about the project.  In effect, it treated stakeholders like sheep, requiring them to consume information when and where they were supposed to, not when they wanted to, not when they needed it.

You will never engage stakeholders
by herding them

This group of stakeholders, many of whom started off as suspicious or hostile, now have

  • A beautifully printed brochure gathering dust in a drawer
  • A dozen emails with huge attachments that are somewhere among the thousands of emails received over those 3 months
  • Access to a database that contains all the relevant information – but they don’t know where the database is located, or how to access it.  Even if they do, the database contains so many documents that finding the pieces relevant to their questions is a nightmare

Most worryingly of all, because they are not engaged and do not know who to talk to or where to go to get themselves up to speed, their first reaction is to complain about a lack of communication.  Because they don’t know where to go to get the facts, this complaint gains traction. And the moment it reaches that point, your job becomes twice as hard.

So, how do you avoid getting into this position?

To answer that, we need to go back to the original question “How do you consume information” and remember that the “you” is not you the Comms Manager, it is you the stakeholders – how do they consume information.

What relationships exist around the enterprise?  Are reporting lines (hard or dotted line) affecting resistance? Who shares information naturally with whom? What existing platforms are in place with which your stakeholders are already familiar?  Are there any conferences or events planned that your stakeholders are likely to attend or follow?  Equally importantly, assuming your stakeholders don’t always avidly read the communications you transmit the second you send them, how can they go back to them and access them hours, days or even weeks later?  Where do they find them?  If they have questions, who do they talk to?

Stop.jpgDon’t try and reinvent the comms wheel by developing new channels – first use the ones that are already known, then think about whether these channels need to be augmented.

By using new channels, you may engage early adopters (those who actively seek new information channels) but you are unlikely to reach traditionalists, and traditionalists are likely to be the majority.  This isn’t about impressing people with your knowledge of social media, or database management, or intranet development.  It’s not about you at all.  It’s about the stakeholders.

Don’t think that if someone has questions about what comms materials exist that they will come to you and ask.  Some people may not even know you exist.  They may not really like you, or may be worried that if they approach you they’ll be told “I already sent it to you 3 times”.  This is not about making them feel stupid. It’s about making them feel engaged.

Don’t brush aside feedback that indicates people aren’t getting it.  It may well be their fault, but it’s your problem.  Abdicating responsibility for ensuring that stakeholders have the facts, or know where to get them, or know who to talk to, is the best way to ensure hostility from the very people on whose positive engagement the success of the project relies.

Most importantly of all, do everything you can to ensure that if your stakeholders are determined to be critical of the timeline, budget assumptions or deliverables of a project that their criticism is related to the facts rather than to incorrect assumptions.  A quick review of Politifact’s ‘Truth-o-Meter’ is an excellent example of how a half-truth or an outright lie can derail debate of the facts to the point where further discussion is pointless, even after the truth has been made known.

Politifact's 'Truth-o-Meter'

Politifact’s ‘Truth-o-Meter’

Churchill once said “A lie gets half way around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on”. Never was this more apt than where change is concerned.  There is no such thing as a communications vacuum, since rumor, supposition and in some cases deliberate misinformation will always breed in any gaps left by factual communication. Once the rumors gain traction, the requirement to disprove them is time consuming and frustrating. Most importantly, it does not move the project forwards – it merely stops it going backwards.

Don’t give troublesome stakeholders the opportunity to attack the project by attacking the communications. Make it as difficult as possible for them to avoid the real issues by saying “I didn’t know that, nobody told me”. If you can achieve that, you are more than halfway to winning the battle.

In post #2, I’ll be looking at another critical comms principle – that of Stakeholder Segmentation.

 
 

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