Managing stakeholder engagement calls upon something quite different from process groups and domains of knowledge, it calls upon the ability to create emotional responses such as enthusiasm, trust, and excitement about a project and the business at large. The tools and techniques on offer in our stakeholder management chapter do not do justice to the task that project managers are asked to accomplish. Hopefully, this paper will encourage project managers to contemplate using innovative methods for stakeholder management.
Keywords: stakeholder engagement, program management, project management, leadership, value
With A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) – Fifth Edition (2013a) and PMI's Managing Change in Organizations: A Practice Guide (2013b), there has been increasing concern for stakeholder management, and more particularly, for the concept of stakeholder engagement. However, since project managers were given a systematic approach to stakeholder analysis as one of the tools and techniques in the fourth edition of the PMBOK® Guide (PMI, 2008), few guidelines have been added to the “Power/Interest” grid as it was first published in the early 1990s (Mendelow, 1991). This is not for lack of other models; to name but a few, Fletcher's (2003) mapping process based on “Value hierarchies” or Bourne's (2005) “Stakeholder Circle.” However, other approaches seem to remain unknown and rarely used, although the project management community generally recognises that approaching a subject from different perspectives may help to gain a holistic perspective. Furthermore, practice reveals the importance of combining methodologies to solve particular problems. Hence, this paper will introduce the idea of changing the paradigm with which we approach stakeholder analysis and expand on the well-documented, but less known and used method of identifying “positive deviance and outliers.”
CHANGING THE PARADIGM
Even the simplest history of project management reveals that much emphasis has been placed on delivering within time and cost restrictions. To this day, in most instances, these parameters have served as the most important measure of project success and everybody “likes a success story.” Unfortunately, focussing our attention on these specific aspects may have detracted us from other more important issues at stake when it comes to managing a project. As we strive to deliver what suits the success criteria of the day, less attention is given to the issue of stakeholder management. The positive side is that, as a result, project managers have become very good at developing schedules and budgets. Unfortunately, the same does not apply when it comes to stakeholder analysis that still remains a mystery to a great many.
To most project managers, a project is “a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service, or result” (PMI, 2013a, p.3). In contrast to this mechanistic definition, for most of our stakeholders, a project remains: “a good idea!” For our stakeholders, it might be that the project result will solve a problem, make life easier or more pleasant, or be lucrative (sometimes to the detriment of other stakeholders). For the fortunate on the bright side of the project, it makes sense to want it now rather than later and “ASAP” (as soon as possible) becomes a rule of thumb in the project world.
For project managers, having a definition that is detached from the emotional purpose of the project (as found in the PMBOK® Guide), may be useful to manage the more technical aspects of the project; however, it might not be as productive when dealing with our stakeholders. This can be unfortunate because, as we all know, the history of project management has been marked by authors suggesting that effective communication with all stakeholders is one of the key factors in determining the success or failure of a project (Sanvido, Grobler, Paifitt, Guvenis, & Coyle, 1992; Thamhain, 1992).
In his book, Start with Why, Simon Sinek (2009) researches how great companies and great leaders do not focus on “what” they do or “how” they do it (project management's mechanistic focus over the years), but on “why” they do what they do. Sinek's theory is well rooted in human psychology and biology. The newer outer layer of the human brain (neo cortex) is responsible for most of our analytical and rational thoughts as well as language. In the case of projects, these outer layer functions are useful to develop specific areas, such as the business case, schedules, budgets, risk registers and so forth and so on. The inner, deeper layers of our brain (limbic sections) are responsible for our feelings, emotions, decision making, and they drive behavior. These older, more primitive sections of the brain have no capacity for language.
Recent stakeholder management directly refers to the concept of engagement. It is all about fostering, managing, and later controlling engagement. The word engagement refers to more than simple communication in the PMBOK® Guide – Fifth Edition (PMI, 2013a) and in Managing Change in Organizations: A Practice Guide (Project Management Institute, 2013b). Engagement is all about the “emotional bond” or “attachment” internal and external stakeholders develop during repeated, on-going (preferably positive) interactions within a project or business. This bond is defined over longer time periods by specific behaviors and attitudes. In some instances, the concept is even enlarged to deeper emotional levels to encompass descriptive narratives such as being emotionally connected, passionate, and aligned to the business’ values and beliefs. In the case of a project, stakeholder engagement is responsible for enthusiasm, excitement about the project, buy-in, and on-going support. These have been recognised over time as major determinants of project success. Engagement is deeply rooted in the inner levels of the brain, not the outer neo cortex.
Thanks to psychology and biology, we can now be aware of the fact that when we communicate with our stakeholders through scope, time, and cost information, we are, in fact, addressing the “what” and “how” data. We are using communication channels that are located in the outer (rational) regions of the brain. In doing so, we are not reaching (and affecting) the inner layers of the brain that rule over emotions, decision making, and behavior. We are trying to work our way from the “outside-in”. This explains why even when presented with overwhelming convincing data, people may not buy-in or adapt to a situation that just “does not feel right”. In order to address trust, loyalty and drive behaviors, one must detach from the rational business case arguments and start communicating with the inner (limbic) layers of the brain.
To promote engagement, great leaders typically use a different method and communicate from the inside out. They address the inner layers of the human brain and later allow people to rationalise their decisions with what they say and do. They plan their communication to address the deeper layers of the brain first to stimulate a positive emotional response and behavior and then work towards a more rational approach of problem solving the data.
This change of paradigm is not new; for many years, transformational leadership has been challenging our old concepts of communication suggesting that “emotions” are more important than “information dissemination” (Rubin, Munz, & Bommer, 2005; Ashkanasy & Tse, 2000). For these authors, leaders must be insightful in order to understand how different stakeholders might feel and anticipate their wants and needs. What was traditionally understood as “the best” communication skills of the past such as clarity, logical formulation, and a professional delivery of information may not be fitting to create stakeholder excitement and enthusiasm (Bass, 1990). In some cases, we might be prematurely destroying the trusting relationship we hope to build with our stakeholders.
As project managers, we need to reconnect with the fact that stakeholders are people and that projects happen because humans tend to have negative feelings when they cannot do anything about an unsatisfactory situation. Acting, or doing something, anything, or in this case, doing the project will enhance positive feelings. Thinking of doing something not only alleviates bad feelings of powerlessness, it also enhances good feelings of powerfulness and accomplishment. These are very primitive survival needs that are deeply rooted within the older limbic parts of the brain. The more recent outer layers of the brain then elaborate the data and the rationalizations (plan, schedule, budget…).
In most cases, when our stakeholders approach us, they already have a mental image of the project results, what it will do, what it will look like, but have some difficulty translating this “vision” into words. It is through stakeholder analysis that we use these mental images to understand expectations and needs, and eventually we develop the list of CSFs, KPIs, and requirements that will define the project scope. With successive elaborations of the project deliverable, we are stimulating the positive feeling that comes with “doing something about a situation.” This usually stimulates another good feeling: hope.
In a nutshell, projects are about good feelings overtaking bad ones. Projects are about hope. They need to be exciting because it is the excitement that energises the system and gives us the energy the do the work and spend the time and money to accomplish a project. These are very “emotional” concepts that reside in the limbic part of the brain. These emotions can be quite different, even quite antagonist to the concrete language of “cost and budget” that resides in the outer neo-cortex. By focussing on these outer cortex functions, especially during initiation, we might be prematurely destroying the momentum needed for the project to start. Many intuitive project managers have already moved in the right direction and use the concept of “achievability” rather than cost and time. Achievability means that one can implement the good idea and “a good idea + achievability” creates “enthusiasm, excitement, hope, and energy.” Unfortunately, the “hard data” does not.
According to Sinek, to communicate “inside-out,” we need to let go of the “what” and “how” and concentrate on the “why” of the project. For project managers, this means letting go of our “time” and “cost” preoccupations and spending quite a bit more energy on understanding our stakeholders’ needs and expectations. Many projects address our need for health, beauty, security, or comfort. In most cases, projects will address a mixture of different individual and group stakeholder needs. In the process of meeting one or several people's needs, typically, we will impinge upon somebody else's, hence the need for a good stakeholder analysis that leads to further problem solving and negotiating.
A NEW PARADIGM
Our present approach to stakeholder management starts with identification and then moves on to sorting, prioritizing, and rationally analysing their wants and needs. Perhaps, it is time for us to venture towards more emotionally enlightened and dynamic models. At times, this means looking at a situation from a different angle.
The success of the project would probably correlate with the amount of enthusiasm it stimulates (if one could measure enthusiasm objectively). In turn, enthusiasm also determines the level of stakeholders’ engagement and, although not often used in the project management world as a stakeholder analysis decision-making tool, the “force field analysis” model (Lewin, 1951) can be enlightening to cast light on a “go/no go” decision. Briefly described, the tool is used by listing all of the stakeholder factors (forces) for and against the project. Then, each factor is scored based on its influence; scores are added to find out which of these win.
As project managers, we are aware that once the intended product or project result has been through the iterations of different stakeholder needs negotiations, sometimes, to our stakeholders, it does not look or do what it was intended to look like or do at the start. In fact, it does not match their initial primitive mental image that we can call the “limbic image.” Even if we have all the right justifications for the modified version, it does not feel right to them. This is a very common event for project managers. In order to satisfy our many stakeholders, our scope definition can end up looking and sounding quite different from the initial mental image that both the pro and con stakeholders had on the final scope.
As illustrated in the best seller, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Seven Patterns of Innovation by Steven Johnson (2011), there is no Eureka moment and good ideas typically stem from a long and somewhat unconscious incubation in our brain that happens over a period of time. This long incubation period tends to combine inputs of many different forms and content to create a good idea. The context of this birth does not follow a carefully developed rational plan, nor is it devised when we formally sit at our desk to work. If anything, the context where good ideas develop is rather messy, in a café, over a cup of coffee, in our kitchen, and so on.
In effect, research shows us that we have long left the den of the lonely creative “artist” as more and more studies demonstrate that change and innovation rate is increased where there are strong social networks (Jaruzelski, Dehoff, & Bordia, 2005; Taatila, 2005) and even among artists, most movements of change and innovations were the product of group interactions such as surrealism, impressionism, cubism, etc., hence, reinforcing the social network theory. It has now become widely accepted that when ideas meet and information comes together, you bring about both change and innovations to market smarter and faster and it would seem that the diversity of ideas and opinions generated through stakeholder engagement lead to higher quality solutions.
It is this discrepancy between the stakeholders’ initial mental image (what the result should look like and do) and the final result (what it ends up looking like and doing) that will create either disappointment or awe about the project result and decide, in the long run, if the project was a success or a failure. Did it end up exceeding stakeholder expectations, or did it let everybody down?
The real measure in project success or failure is not the difference between what it should cost and how much it did or how much time it should have taken compared to how much time it took. The real measure of project success is how much disappointment or awe the project result created for the stakeholders whilst “remaining within the given time and cost constraints.” Only stakeholder analysis can answer this question because this means measuring the difference between initial expectations and results.
The mental image or mental picture is the representation in our stakeholders’ minds of the physical result of the project. It is how they perceive the project result without it being actually present to the senses. According to cognitive psychologist Steven Pinkers (1999), our experiences of the world are represented in our minds as mental images that can then be associated, compared, and used to synthesize completely new images. In general, researchers agree that although no specific site in the brain has been identified in viewing these mental images, our brains form and maintain mental images as image-like wholes and different people report large individual differences in the vividness of their images. Laboratory studies have shown that the variations in imagery are associated with different cognitive competences such as the ability to recall information in the pictures and the ability to verbalise their content.
For project managers, it might be important to work with stakeholders to help their mental image of the project gradually evolve. Research on how visual imagery might influence the customer appeal of a product output is not a new approach. Already, in the late 1990s, findings show that including stakeholders in imagination visual imagery during the design process has a greater effect on the usefulness of the product than including the customer in memory visual imagery. The results also show that imagery based on imagination results in more original designs and products than imagery based on memory. Most important, the use of bounded imagination, which results from the incorporation of the visual images of the customer in imagination imagery, leads to the creation of products that are more appealing to the customer (Dahl, Chattopadhyay, & Gorn, 1999).
In contrast, ever since the term “stakeholder” became more familiar to the project community, we have seen different stakeholder analysis grids surfacing from the research world. Like Mendelow, Mitchell, Agle, and Wood developed another stakeholder analysis grid that looks at three variables: the “power to influence,” the “quality of the relationship,” and the “urgency of the stakeholders’ claim(s)” from the organization. Their overall goal was to help managers determine priority in terms of attending and responding to different stakeholders and they labelled the concept “salience.”
In the grid-like framework, the whole idea is to try and produce an ordered classification that simplifies a complex problem. More often than not, the suggested grid is a simple, two-dimensional matrix where the problem is reduced to the analysis of two variables as in the “Power/Interest” matrix. In other cases, the problem is presented as three-dimensional and then three variables are looked at. Given that the 1990s were years when the quantitative paradigm was the most, if not the only, acceptable avenue for funded research, these grids are one of the popular by-products of the time. In order to maintain credibility, researchers and their students were explicitly expected to isolate, control, and measure sets of variables in order to produce statistically valid data and many of these projects lead to the development of a grid. This was the side of theory that was packaged for practitioner use and sometimes became marketable and sold. Most of these grids are the by-product of a quantitative research paradigm and rarely address the qualitative aspects of stakeholder management.
Over the years, stakeholder grids continued to emerge throughout the project literature, to name but a few:
- Fletcher, Guthrie, Steane, Roos, and Pike developed a process to map stakeholder expectations based on another set of two variables: “value hierarchies” and “key performance areas” (KPAs) (Fletcher et al., 2003).
- Lynda Bourne (2005) developed the concept of the “Stakeholder Circle” in her doctoral thesis and then further developed a tool to map the top 15 project stakeholders into a symbolic stakeholder community. This process depicts their relative importance through color coding, and the size and placement of the segments of the Circle. In this case, the assessment of each stakeholder's importance to the project is based on ratings from the project team members of the stakeholder's “perceived power,” “proximity,” and “urgency.”
- Murray-Webster and Simon (2006), noted that the most commonly used grids use either the “Power versus Interest” or “Interest versus Attitude” approach, and suggested another three-variable model for stakeholder analysis. As they readily admitted that this might be more difficult to picture, they felt it mapped out most of the things that needed to be considered and gave some hopefully useful descriptive labels that could be checked out during the overall process of stakeholder analysis and subsequent stakeholder management.
AN INNOVATIVE APPROACH
This particular story, although initially told by Johnson (2012) in a different way and for different reasons, is a straightforward “project” story that shows the importance of how we understand and approach stakeholders.
In a nutshell, Monique and Jerry Sternin were asked by the Vietnamese government to help solve one of its most pressing health problems in the 1990s. More than 50% of the children suffered from malnutrition; this was both a punctual problem and one that would have long term consequences because childhood malnutrition affects developing brains and bodies in a way that prevents the attainment of later, full human potential.
The project was a classic project management story in terms of disposing of limited funds and a period of six months to show results. This was the early 90s and as project managers, most of us know that the traditional approach to similar problems was for foreign aid groups to arrive as experts, educate the locals on diet and nutrition, and teach methods to ensure the water is safe. However, we also know that these expert consultations have a very low success rate. If and when changes happen, they consistently fail to be maintained when support either diminishes or is withdrawn at the end of the project. More often than not, these change solutions are imported from another culture and long-term adoption is very poor. The local population swiftly goes back to its own ways. In this case, the story is different.
When they set out to rural villages, the Sternins decided to team up with a local volunteer that helped introduce them to the local population. Their goal was simply to watch and listen. However, they watched and listened with a specific purpose in mind. They were looking for what has now been labelled by recent researchers as “positive outliers” or “positive deviants.” Jerry and Monique were already familiar with Zeitlin's work from the late 1980s (Zeitlin, 1990).
Zeitlin had indeed been doing research on nutrition patterns in poor communities (in the United States) and had noticed that a few of the malnourished children—the “deviants”—were doing much better than the rest of the community. Zeitlin had then developed the idea of “amplifying positive deviance” and the Sternins were on a mission to find these deviants within the small Vietnam villages (Dorsey, 2000). In order to do so, they used a number of more traditional tools such as weighing the children and monitoring growth, but they also added a number of untraditional methods such as getting to know the families, and asking them if some kids in the village seemed healthier or better fed. This involved developing a trusting relationship with the locals that led to them sharing this information, sometimes through a friendly conversation, small-talk, or word of mouth.
This process led to the discovery (as anticipated by Zeitlin's earlier work) of several families in each village that deviated from the nutritional standard. This then left the Sternins with the difficult task of figuring out what these families were doing differently from the rest of the local population. In order to discover this, they had to get up close and develop a relationship with these families.
Through keen observation of the deviants’ daily routines and habits, Monique and Jerry discovered that the “deviants” tended to serve their children smaller, but more frequent meals as well as deviating from social norm by adding small shellfish pulled from the rice paddies (shellfish is considered low-class within the culture).
As a project manager, one of the most amazing aspects of this story is not only how the Sternins approached the problem and discovered solutions through the inquisitive eyes of “positive deviance,” but how they then proceeded to implement some of these solutions.
Most “good” project managers would have been so caught up in the “time is money” paradigm that we can just imagine most of us (me included) now coming up with a series of courses and lectures to the community about how to do this. But, to my surprise, this is not the road that the Sternins took. Instead of evangelizing the local community with the value of adding shrimp or crab to their menu for them to add critical protein and vitamins to the diet, they chose to encourage the positive deviants to spread the word themselves. In order to facilitate things, they simply created the environment for it to happen. Among other activities, they organized fun gatherings, activities, and days that were role modelled on similar local events. They encouraged and promoted the sought behaviors by asking the locals to collect shellfish as an entrance fee.
This is a project with a happy ending as the results were so impressive that the Sternins were allowed to continue their work for much longer than the initial six-month period and two years later, malnutrition had declined by 65 to 85 %.
We now need to integrate what we have learned from the literature on emotional intelligence in order to increase stakeholder engagement. For project managers, this might mean giving up the past quantitative paradigm that led to the development of the well-known grid approach to stakeholder analysis. Authentic feelings do not surface when we rank stakeholders on a grid; they are primarily communicated through facial expressions and nonverbal behavior (Ekman & Friesen, 1974; Mayer, Salovey, Caruso, & Sitarenios, 2001). For Rubin et al. (2005), a leader's ability to accurately recognize emotions in followers involves the ability to accurately decode others’ expressions of emotions communicated through their nonverbal communications (i.e., the face, body, and voice).
Research findings have demonstrated that emotion recognition is the most reliably validated component of emotional intelligence and that it is linked to a variety of positive organizational outcomes (Elfenbein & Ambady, 2002).
It is high time that we start moving away from our “one right answer: sort, prioritize, and rationally analyse” approach to stakeholders and venture to more emotionally enlightened and dynamic models to better understand our stakeholders and our leadership role when interacting with them.
Managing stakeholder engagement calls upon something much larger than process groups and domains of knowledge; it calls upon the ability to create emotional responses such as trust, enthusiasm, and excitement about a project and the business-at-large and the tools and techniques on offer in our stakeholder management chapter do not do justice to the task that project managers are asked to accomplish. Hopefully, this paper will encourage project managers to expand their knowledge and seek different ways of approaching stakeholder management based on knowledge and research from other fields.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Manon Deguire is a managing partner of Valense Ltd. She has led a number of training and consultancy mandates in change, value, project, and program management. She is an internationally recognized speaker and has published regularly both at the academic and practitioner levels in international forums. Her clients are major corporations from varied domains, including: academia, finance, transportation, IT, defence, and manufacturing, among others.
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