Stakeholder 2 Stakeholder networking


Valense Ltd.


With the recent publication of A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide—5th Edition) and PMI’s Managing Change in Organizations: A Practice Guide, there has been an increasing concern for Stakeholder Management at large, and more particularly for Stakeholder Engagement. With these changes in mind, perhaps the time has come to start moving away from our classic linear “power-influence” graph model for stakeholder analysis and venture to a more dynamic approach to understand our stakeholders. This presentation looks at the method of identifying “positive deviance and outliers” to facilitate change and how to adapt it to our project environment. The paper further introduces the advantages of setting up “peer to peer” stakeholder networks to help manage our project, program, and change environments.

Stakeholder Context

I will start this presentation with a story that first came to my attention in 2012 through the eyes of Steven Johnson in his book Future Perfect. I am choosing this particular story because, although initially told by Johnson in a different way and for different reasons, this is a very straightforward “project management for change” story that shows the importance of how we understand and approach stakeholders.

In a nutshell, this is the story of Monique and Jerry Sternin, who were asked by the Vietnamese government to help solve one of its most pressing health problems. When Monique and Jerry went to Vietnam in the early 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 1990s, 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 If and when changes happen, they consistently fail to be maintained when support either diminishes or is withdrawn at the end of the project.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 labeled by recent researchers as “positive outliers” or “positive deviants.” Jerry and Monique were already familiar with Zeitlin’s work from the late 1980s (Zeitlin et al., 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 deviate 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 (myself 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 modeled 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%.

Stakeholder Management

The gradual changes in the content of the PMBOK® Guide reflect the increasing preoccupation with the concept of stakeholder management as a whole, and more particularly, stakeholder engagement. This was a progressive incremental change that came about within the communication knowledge area at first, and with the Fifth Edition, we now have a new Knowledge Area completely devoted to Stakeholder Management; two processes are more particularly devoted to managing Stakeholder Engagement (PMI, 2012). With these changes, project managers’ responsibilities now stretch far beyond communication, as they must, “…actively work to ensure an appropriate level of engagement of stakeholders in the decision making and activities of the project” (PMI, 2012, p. 469).

The recently published Managing Change in Organizations: A Practice Guide (PMI, 2013) tells us that projects/programs similar to our Vietnam story geared toward implementing innovations have typically not been very successful. This is one of the many reasons that both the project management community and the change management community have devoted considerable efforts in addressing the issue. The Guide clearly identifies Stakeholder Collaboration, Empowerment, and Egagement as the first and perhaps foremost important critical success factors for change management in the execution of organizational project management. Particular importance is given to the issues of addressing stakeholders systematically and iteratively as well as performing change “with” rather than “to” people (PMI, 2013, p.32). The Vietnam story is a perfect example of how one would go about performing change “with” stakeholders. However, as illustrated above, the route is not always readily obvious, and in this paper, we will ask ourselves if project managers are actually less attentive to positive deviance when we use our traditional tools and techniques to undersand and analyse our stakeholders. We will also question how we actually implement change.

The question of the day is not that stakeholder engagement is important—this is now a documented fact—but rather, “Given that it is so important, how does one foster it? And how does one use it to effectively facilitate change?”

Last, but not least, we will question the fact that although the level of responsibilities and the expected results concerning stakeholders has changed considerably for project managers in the last few years, have our tools and techniques for stakeholder analysis evolved beyond the “Power/Interest” grid that was developed in the early 1990s?

The Sixties

Wikipedia defines the years between 1960 and 1969 as the decade that was labeled the “Swinging Sixties” because of the fall of social taboos, especially relating to racism and sexism, that occurred during this time. The sixties became synonymous with the new, radical, and subversive events and trends of the period (Wikipedia, 2014a). This is the cultural era in which Jerry Sternin began his professional journey in 1962 as a Peace Corps volunteer on the island of Mindanao, Philippines. It is also at this time that on a narrow wooden bridge in the tiny village of Marawi, he met Richard Pascale, who was then on active duty in the U.S. Navy. Jerry and Richard were co-authors (along with Monique) for the book The Power of Deviance, published some 50 years later in 2010.

The swinging sixties were definitely an active time of change in all aspects of life and in business. In the United States, the number of women at work had doubled between 1940 and 1960 (40% of all women and 33% of all married women worked outside of the home by 1960), credit cards arrived, shopping patterns changed, and there was an explosion of homebuilding with ease of financing for new homes.

It is no surprise that it is in the early 1960s that the “stakeholder” concept seems to have surfaced and first been used in an internal memorandum at the Stanford Research Institute. With all the new projects, among all the other exciting things going on in the business world, one of them was project management emerging as a profession. By the end of the swinging sixties, in 1968, the Project Management Institute was formed, and that same year it attracted 83 attendees to its first symposium in Atlanta, Georgia.

The Seventies

Wikipedia states that in the twenty-first century, historians have increasingly portrayed the seventies as a “pivot of change” in world history, focusing especially on the economic upheavals. In the Western world, social progressive values that began in the 1960s, such as increasing political awareness and political and economic liberty of women, continued to grow (Wikipedia, 2014b).

For Jerry, the seventies were definitely a “pivot of change,” as he became Associate Peace Corps Director, Nepal. His friend Richard began graduate studies at Harvard Business School (HBS), and when Jerry’s overseas tour ended, Richard’s introduction paved the way for his appointment as Counseling Dean at HBS. Jerry’s association with Harvard altered the course of his life because this is where he met Monique, a French citizen who had come to HBS to study. Monique had a master’s degree in American literature and civilization from Paris University. In 1975, she traveled to India and Nepal and developed an interest in cross-cultural communication, and after a teaching stint in Paris, she moved to the US to study. She received a master’s degree in 1978 from the Harvard School of Education.

For PMI, the seventies were just as equally a “pivot of change.” In 1970, the PMQuarterly was first published (it later became the Project Management Journal®). This was also the year that PMI held its first Seminar/Symposium outside the USA, in Montreal, Canada, and the first PMI Chapter was formed, as well as the Professional Awards Program. By the end of the 1970s, PMI had over 2,000 members worldwide (Stud Chopper News, 2014).

It is interesting to note that by the end of the 1970s, more precisely in 1977, much like the term “project management,” the term “stakeholder” had gained enough momentum for the Wharton School in Pennsylvania to undertake a project that explored the implications of the stakeholder concept as a management theory (Freeman & Reed, 1983), but, it is only in 1984 that Freeman published his book Strategic Management: A Stakeholder Approach, from which the idea seems to have gained in popularity. Here, stakeholders are defined as those groups without whose support the organization would cease to exist.

The Eighties

Monique and Jerry married, “honeymooned” on a Peace Corps directorship in Mauritania, and returned to Harvard in 1981 for Jerry’s postgraduate work in Asian Studies (with a concentration in Mandarin). In the course of study, they were introduced to a peripheral research distinction—positive deviance—a term used to categorize the outliers occasionally encountered in fieldwork (i.e., those who defy the norm and succeed when others are failing). At the time, the construct that had been developed by Zeitlin inspired no particular epiphany.

During this same period, PMI was also busy developing. The first Project Management Professional® Certification examination was created, and PMI published its first Project Management Standard that would later become the PMBOK® Guide.

These were the years during which both “project management” and “stakeholder management” were making their way into the vocabulary of the more “avant-garde” managers of the day.

Meanwhile, Jerry’s good friend Richard had received his doctorate from HBS and commenced life as a professor at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business. His interests lay at the intersection of strategic ambition and organizational change. By the late 1980s, he had become a respected teacher and bestselling author. His expertise also attracted consulting assignments, one of them with John Browne who had recently been named head of British Petroleum’s (BP) exploration division.

By the end of the eighties, Monique and Jerry had a young son named Sam, they left Harvard, and rotated through a series of Save the Children directorships in Bangladesh and the Philippines. In 1989, the NGO made them an offer to open the first field office in Vietnam. This involved surmounting a number of difficulties, such as needing funding at a time when host sensitivities were such that the funds could not come from an American source. Richard, still consulting to BP, learned of the company’s plans to conduct offshore seismic tests in Vietnam’s territorial waters. He introduced the Sternins’ work to John Browne. A seed grant of $250,000 was provided to underwrite the startup, and BP’s support continued over the duration of the project. That is how Monique and Jerry went to Vietnam.

The Nineties

The next hurdle for the Sternins surfaced shortly thereafter, in 1990. Scars of the “American War” (as it is known in Vietnam) were both physically and psychologically manifest. The Ministry of Health wished to focus on the widespread prevalence of childhood malnutrition in rural Vietnam. The proposed collaboration with an all-too-recent enemy was not straightforward. Preliminary visits before embarking on the venture made clear that receptivity was tentative, access to the population limited, and the window during which the Sternins must prove themselves was short. What followed was the first of many successes using the positive deviance approach over the next 30 years.

Meanwhile, back home in the USA, the term “project management” was becoming more popular, and PMI’s membership grew to almost 9,000 members; SIGs, Colleges and Seminars USA were formed. Among other interesting developments of the period, a special edition of the Academy of Management Review was devoted to the stakeholder theory (Clarke, 2004). Since those days, many definitions of the term “stakeholder” have surfaced, and there is still debate about a single simple definition, but both the corporate view and the project view of the time identified stakeholders as actors that are significant for the successful realization of objectives. Guba and Lincoln (1989) also talked about stakeholders as being “groups at risk” from the outcomes.

These were the days when management research really started paying increasing attention to the difficult task of understanding the stakeholder issue and its importance. In 1991, Savage et al. offered a classification based on “potential threats” and “potential for cooperation,” and it is also the year that seems to pop up as one of the first references for our now well-known “Power-Interest” grid that is often cited as being Mendelow’s. However, the specific reference for this seems difficult to pinpoint because Mendelow does not appear to have published till 1995. The grid is mentioned in Johnson and Scholes’ book Exploring Corporate Strategy, first published in 1999.

In 1996, the first version of the PMBOK® Guide (as we know it) was published. In this first version, “Stakeholder Analysis” appears as one of the communication planning tools, but it makes no mention of a stakeholder analysis grid, and at this point in time PMI defines stakeholders as: “Individuals and organizations who are involved in or may be affected by project activities” (PMI, 1996 p.170).

Ever since the term “stakeholder” became more familiar to the business community, we have seen different stakeholder analysis grids surfacing from the research world. Like Savage and Mendelow, in 1997, Mitchell et al. developed another stakehoder 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.”

Salience, much like power, refers to such qualities as prominence, importance, and that which is most noticeable. The implications of salience have been discussed at length within areas such as communication, semiotics, linguistics, sociology, psychology, and political science, all implying that there be an implicit or explicit order of value against which prominence is assessed, and high salience, much like high power, always sits at the top of the pyramid.

In the gridlike framework, the whole idea is to try to produce an ordered classification that simplifies a complex problem. More often than other, the suggested grid is a simple two-dimentional matrix where the problem is reduced to the analysis of two variables, as in the “Power/Interest” matrix. In other cases, like with Mitchell, the problem is presented as three-dimentional, and then three variables are looked at. Given that the nineties 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 led to the development of a grid. This was the side of theory that was packaged for practitioner use and sometimes sold.

It is now rather amusing to imagine what would have happened to our Vietnam story if Jerry and Monique had approached the stakeholder issues with either one of these stakeholder analysis grids.

Who would have been at the top of the pyramid in terms of getting all the attention, and would the deviants have even been considered as players, let alone important ones?


In 2000, the second version of the PMBOK® Guide was published with few variations to the stakeholder issue except for an updated definition of the term. Although it makes no reference to a stakeholder analysis grid, on the research side, stakeholder grids continued to emerge throughout the decade, and to name but a few:

  • Fletcher et al. developed a process to map stakeholder expectations based on another set of two variables: “value hierarchies” and “key performance areas” (KPAs) (Fletcher, Guthrie, et al., 2003).
  • In 2005, Lynda Bourne 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.”
  • In 2006, Murray-Webster and Simon, noting that most commonly used grids use either the “Power versus Interest” or “Interest versus Attitude” approach, 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

It is in 2004 with the third edition of the PMBOK® Guide that we see the first appearance of a process within the communication chapter that is now labeled “Manage Stakeholders.” Although still restricted to the communication domain, “ . . . stakeholder management refers to managing communications to satisfy the needs of, and resolve issues with, project stakeholders. Actively managing stakeholders increases the likelihood that the project will not veer off track due to unresolved stakeholder issues, enhances the ability of persons to operate synergistically, and limits disruptions during the project”(PMI, 2004).

In 2008, with the fourth edition of the PMBOK® Guide, project managers were given a systematic approach to stakeholder analysis as one of the tools and techniques under the heading “Identify Stakeholders” in the communication chapter. The “Power/Interest” grid, as it was first published in the early 1990s, is figure 10-4 on page 249. It took 20 years before a “stakeholder analysis” grid made its way to the PMBOK® Guide content, and it remained confined to the communications area of the project, although for many years, authors of various fields have argued that one of the obstacles to delivering value came from the mismatch between organizational objectives and stakeholder needs and expectations (Kirk, 2000; Thiry, 2004).

With the fifth edition, we now have a full chapter devoted to Stakeholder Management, and two of its processes concern engagement. Engagement has a totally different set of variables to those of communication that we are now expected to understand and promote; hence, let us look more closely at what engagement encompasses and how it differs from simple communication in order to look at ways we can take on this new challenge.

Stakeholder Engagement

The idea of stakeholder engagement is not new, and back in the days when Jerry started his professional life in the Peace Corps, many organizations focused on building customer and employee satisfaction, trust, and loyalty. To these organizations, although not easily measured, engagement was managed much like a tangible asset. The underlying thought was that increased customer and employee satisfaction would lead to reduced turnover and training costs, positive word of mouth, higher premiums for services, and greater share value, which all lead to higher profits and faster growth.

Back in those days, it was evident that the word “engagement” was larger than simple communication, as it also refers to the “emotional bond” or “attachment” internal and external stakeholders develop during repeated, ongoing, (preferably positive) interactions within a group or business. This bond is defined over longer time periods by specific behaviors and attitudes. In some instances, the concept can be enlarged to deeper emotional levels to encompass descriptive narratives such as “being emotionally connected, passionate, and aligned in terms of values and beliefs.”

Part and parcel of the engagement scenario was that prior to the 1980s, employers typically offered lifetime employment and, in return, expected loyalty. When global competition increased, organizations needed to be more flexible to survive and gradually changed the original understanding, or what has been referred to as the “psychological contract,” a term used in the 1960s by Argyris (1957) to describe the employer/employee relationship. Plants were closed, businesses became global, and wages and benefits were increasingly controlled to compete. Workers were laid off, and jobs were frequently exported or outsourced to other countries where the cost of labor was less. Loyalty was no longer rewarded, and those who still had a job were asked to do more with less. Within this context, workers tended to be less loyal and became increasingly demotivated (Welbourne, 2007). It is when research demonstrated that engaged employees tend to be both more loyal and more productive that the popularity of the concept of stakeholder engagement grew as a possible solution.

In the 1990s, in an effort to re-motivate disengaged employees, numerous studies on employee engagement and many different behavior and attitude questionnaires, surveys, and scales to document engagement started surfacing. The onus of fostering and monitoring engagement gradually fell upon managers, and among the numerous recommendations to managers and leaders, three main conditions seem to surface in order to create, nurture, and maintain employee engagement (Welbourne, 2007). Leaders themselves need to be engaged; they need to clearly articulate how each role helps support the business strategy; and, leaders need to create an environment where jobs and employees are valued.

As we can see from the numerous studies, one of the key factors in stakeholder engagement is the ability to develop a trusting relationship within the employer, employee, and overall customer network. One can no longer minimize the importance of relationships with stakeholders at large and the necessity of spending additional time with individuals thoroughly discussing the issues and providing guidance. This type of dialog has not been made easier in the last decade with several important factors affecting the context of communication, such as the progressive popularity of distance work with individuals and teams that are no longer co-located, and remote clients and other stakeholders with whom communication might remain on a virtual level for the length of a project or program.

In one of the recent studies done on 1,500 employees, Dale Carnegie (2012) found that there are three key drivers to engagement in the workforce, namely: the relationship with the immediate supervisor; the belief in senior leadership; and, pride in working for the company. Given that a “caring manager” seems to be one of the key elements, it has become a real concern that supervisors develop a range of soft skills that show they care about employees’ personal lives, take an interest in them as people, care about how they feel, and support their health and well-being. Much rests on a manager’s ability to build strong individual relationships as well as strong team interactions and lead in a “person-centered” way in order to foster the right environment for a level of engagement that will lead to either innovation or acceptance of change.

Because of the work on engagement, the past two decades have witnessed a great deal of scholarly attention to transformational leadership behavior, and it is currently the most widely accepted leadership paradigm (Tejeda, 2001). With transformational leadership, authors take us far beyond our older concepts of communication, suggesting that “emotions” are more important than the “information dissemination” that was often the focus of communication skills of the past (Rubin & al., 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).

Towers Watson (2012) surveyed over 30,000 workers and revealed the same results as the Dale Carnegie study in terms of number of highly engaged (1/3) and totally disengaged (1/3) individuals in the workplace, with the other (1/3) being neutral. On top of the important role that managers might have in the area of engagement, the studies also suggest that in order to enhance employee engagement, the organizations need to fill two important gaps, which are: enabling workers with internal support, resources, and tools; and creating an environment that is energizing to work in because it promotes physical, emotional, and social well-being. The conclusions point to the fact that when engagement declines, companies become vulnerable not only to lower productivity, but also to poor customer service, higher absenteeism, and turnover. Nonetheless, leader characteristics still remain the top drivers to engagement and, more particularly when they are effective at growing the business, show sincere interest in employees’ well-being, behave consistently with the organization’s core values, and earn employees’ trust and confidence.

Bass (1990) went so far as to argue that transformational leaders “meet the emotional needs of each employee” (p. 21), and a number of authors have since added that creation of follower excitement and enthusiasm stems from appraisal of followers’ authentic feelings (George, 2000). Creating stakeholder engagement is about more than buy-in; it is about excitement and enthusiasm, terms that are not readily used or exported to the business milieu. As a prerequisite for meeting followers’ emotional needs, one needs to have an accurate assessment of how followers feel, a competency often seen (in the frameworks of the past) as reserved to psychologists, close friends, or therapists.

According to the literature on emotional intelligence, authentic feelings are primarily communicated through facial expressions and nonverbal behavior (Ekman & Friesen, 1974; Mayer & al., 2001). For Rubin & 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 & al., 2002). Managerial derailment is heavily influenced by a manager’s inability to understand others’ perspectives, a limitation that makes them insensitive to others (Lombardo & al., 1988). Mayer and Gavin (2005) take this concept even further when investigating trust relationships in the workplace and provide evidence of how trust also affects performance. These authors point to the fact that managers who have developed these abilities engage their people more, which results in a higher capability to focus attention and better business results. Organizations need to recognize the importance of the manager’s role in employee engagement and how difficult it is to manage change when 1/3 of the workforce is totally disengaged, not to mention the negative effect on the overall group of stakeholders.

We can ask ourselves if Jerry Sternin is simply one of these natural transformational types of leaders. Sadly, Jerry died in December 2008; however, as an indicator of what type of person he might have been, this was on the HBR blog:

<<Jerry had a brilliant mind, a big laugh, a flair for Asian cooking, a preternatural gift for listening, and a Santa-sackful of stories. My favorite was about the time the Dalai Lama invited him for an audience. Jerry became tongue-tied and the short speech he’d planned to offer vanished from his mind. So he pulled out his wooden recorder and simply played extemporaneously for an hour and a half. After he was finished, the Dalai Lama smiled at him said simply, “You’re one of us.”>> (Fryer, 2008)

As project managers, whether we had the opportunity of meeting Jerry or not, what we can say about him is that he has left us a wonderful new way of approaching our stakeholders through the lens of positive deviance (PD). PD has the distinct advantage of being easily added and used with our present repertoire of tools and techniques. When he died, he and his wife Monique had just received a huge grant to spread the word about PD and both were working with Richard on their book for the HBS Press.

Peer 2 Peer Networks

On top of PD, which would have been more than enough to contribute to project management, I mentioned that one of the admirable aspects of the Vietnam story was how Monique and Jerry had implemented the sought out changes by having the deviants spread the word themselves rather than lecturing the local people. As most of us know, one of the most problematic aspects of change is often implementation, and perhaps there are a few more lessons to be learned from Jerry before we close.

For deviants to spread the word themselves, Jerry created what is now known as a Peer2Peer Network (P2P). Although this sounds like a technology-based idea, in the case of our Vietnam story, no technology was involved, and the idea of Peer2Peer need not be technology based (although our access to computers can facilitate and increase our stakeholders’ capacity to communicate with each other). Peer2Peer simply means that we are setting up a distributed rather than a centralized, or for that matter, a decentralized network as illustrated bellow (Johnson, 2012):

Centralized Decentralized and Distributed Networks

FIG I – Centralized Decentralized and Distributed Networks

In a traditional stakeholder management mode, the project team or the project manager collects the required information in order to “manage stakeholder engagement” and then “control stakeholder engagement” as prescribed in the fifth version of the PMBOK® Guide (PMI, 2012). Additionally, stakeholders are organized according to the stakeholder “Power/Interest” grid and occupy different levels of importance. Information is centralized and prioritized. Generally, communications are structured and planned to follow this methodically organized model.

However, when customer engagement began being studied via Customer Relationship Management (CRM) in the late 1990s, it marked the first attempts to move away from one-way mass marketing to a two-way dialogue with customers, and more recently with the development of new technologies, the power of consumers in this dialogue has grown considerably. They can seek advice from other consumers, are more informed, and can express themselves. Organizations and brands have little or no influence over parts of the larger community of stakeholders’ conversation.

Although the focus of CRM has always been involvement and interaction, engagement seems to differ in terms of the level of intimacy and influence within the stakeholder relationship. The depth of this relationship can only evolve through the creation of true two-way conversations. It is no longer sufficient for customers to simply react to company news, views, and bulletins; they must now be able to proactively engage with a brand (Myles, 2011). Similarly, it is no longer sufficient for employees to be “informed” about the organization’s mission, vision, and strategic goals. Employees need to feel that this is a two-way conversation and that they are part of the decision-making process.

In more recent years, this move from CRM to customer engagement (CE) was prompted by the fact that research has shown that high customer satisfaction alone was not sufficient to guarantee the customer’s business. Results to the order of 60 to 80% of customers who defect to a competitor said they were satisfied or very satisfied just before defecting. It has now become accepted that an “engaged” relationship is probably the only guarantee for a return on your or your clients’ objectives (Eisenberg & Eisenberg, 2006). When results of similar research are exported to employee behaviors, it is possible that a defecting employee might be satisfied with their present job.

Whether it be employee-focused or customer-focused, the main difference between what was traditionally understood as communication and the ongoing shift toward engagement seems marked by more customized individual interactions that prompt stakeholders to act on the content. The participation in product development, customer services, and other aspects of the organization’s experience are of utmost importance, as well as moving away from a top-down formal interaction to a continuing, dialogic, decentralized, and personalized experience initiated and led by either party.

The distributed network is in fact how the Internet as we know it presently works, and it was chosen over the centralized and the decentralized models simply because it proves to be far more resilient. In a distributed system, if one node goes down, the information can find its way to its ultimate destination through a different set of nodes. In our Vietnam example and in many similar change project examples, when the information and the communication system is centralized, “the locals” simply revert to their customary ways of doing things when the project ends. Change is not sustained.

As in the Vietnam story, these networks do not need to be digital networks, but instead webs of human collaboration and exchange. Johnson (2012) defines peer networks as “decentralized in their control systems, no single individual or group is in charge.” Networks are dense and involve many participants with many interconnections between them. They are diverse, in that the individuals bring different values or perspectives to the system. Peer networks emphasize open exchange, new ideas are free to flow as they are generated, and they have some mechanism to assign value to the information promoting positive deviance over negative deviance by creating incentives for participation or by steering the system toward certain goals.

Although this might seem like a tall agenda at first, it is an idealistic model of the type of relationships we need to create within our stakeholder groups, and Jerry seems to have managed to do it in small villages in rural Vietnam more than 30 years ago.


Jerry’s eulogy from the HBS blog continues with: “If Jerry had a fault, it was his lousy timing at the end … The garden on their brand-new dream house, on a Concord, Massachusetts, pond, had finished its second summer bloom. They had just hired a long-sought executive director to help run their Positive Deviance Initiative at Tufts University. Their wonderful son Sam had launched his career at the Gates Foundation. They were looking forward to dialing back a bit and passing their work on, in an even bigger way, to the world” (Fryer, 2008).

As life experience teaches most of us, meaningful relationships usually take time to develop and are the product of a number of communications, of which, many have simply drifted from light superficial to more meaningful content. In business, the preoccupation for efficiency together with time constraints has made us consider this kind of unplanned chatter as wasteful.

In his own way, Jerry was a real “project manager,” and he lives on through the numerous lives he changed because of how he ran his projects. Among the Vietnamese children he helped in the early nineties, many would now be in their mid- to late twenties. Two of the precious tools that came in handy are readily available to most project managers. These were “Positive Deviance” and setting up a “Peer2Peer” network among his stakeholders.

The PD approach has since been used successfully to tackle malnutrition in 41 countries, again producing sustainable reductions in malnutrition of between 65 and 85% (Lewis, 2009).


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© 2014, Manon Deguire
Originally published as a part of the 2014 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Phoenix, Arizona, USA



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