How to Dramatically Improve Stakeholder Consultations

Asking stakeholders what they want used to be an exercise in self-flagellation. The assumption was that you had to take everyone’s perspective seriously and literally. Those that complained loudest were given the most attention.

Consultations are an important and growing component of aligning organizations, both public and private with the community / customers they represent or serve.

The clearest reason for stakeholder consultations is to make strategic and tactical decisions more effective and efficient.

They don’t have to be a form of torture. But, when you ask people for their opinion in an open form they will tend to express their doubts and concerns. For some, it’s a therapeutic opportunity to express their deep frustration. I remind you of my often-quoted line about frustrated voices; never wrestle with a pig – the pig enjoys the wrestling and you get dirty.

The good news is that progress has been made…

Here’s where you can turn consultations into powerful exercises to align communities and the organizations that have to make things happen.

Pre-planning should involve a core group of the stakeholder advisors to find out what outcomes they’d like to get.

Be clear on higher outcomes. For example a recent consultation was designed not only to actively listen to group of stakeholders largely at war with each other, but also to let them listen to each other.

Allow the group a short period in every session to express their concerns, but don’t let a few people dominate – we already know what upsets them and, other than ‘demands’ they usually can’t express what they actually want. When we discuss problems at any length it keeps the person in a state of being stuck. Our interest in their problem means we are not being helpful to them.

Better to ask the group, a) what’s working in their area, b) how they are managing to cope despite the complexity/difficulties and c) about exceptions to the problem. If the complainers want to go back to the problem, simply ask them what would be happening if the problem went away. Don’t skip asking about what’s working or make it short – it’s the basis of helping them get unstuck.

Turn to what needs to be different, or better in the future. Find out what the larger group has in common about what needs to get better. Start by asking, ‘Suppose more was working, what else would that be happening (for the community)?’

Get people thinking about actions by asking them what the larger group and some of the individual stakeholders might do to make progress right away.

Read back to the audience a long list of the purposeful things they said. Let them see you have been actively listening. Don’t promise lots of change, but instead offer progress – thanks to their input.

Help stakeholders make progress by noticing what everyone has in common about the need. Help them see they can have a role in making it happen with the support of the organizing body.

Here’s an example of local community stakeholders at work:

Don’t forget that customers are stakeholders too!