Will Your People Support You?

Will Your People Support You?

Is your organization considering a big change? Do you plan to implement a new policy or program? Are you undertaking a strategic planning process?

Leveraging stakeholder engagement is one critical success factor. Do it right, and you optimize your chances of success. Fail to engage key stakeholders, and your change efforts will likely feel like trying to push a rock uphill.

In my experience as a leader within organizations and as a consultant to them, I have observed (and stepped into) a few change “potholes.” One common mistake is overlooking employees as stakeholders in your change effort. When considering a shift in strategy, organizations often conduct thorough environmental analyses, with a focus on external stakeholders. In an effort to ensure hearing from lots of external voices, some organizations take for granted one very important stakeholder group—their own employees.

Recently I led a team through a mind-mapping exercise to identify key stakeholders to their strategic planning process. We quickly identified many: clients, collaborators, competitors, board members, peer organizations. I prodded a little further, and eventually, a team member said, “what about employees?” A debate ensued: are employees really stakeholders? In my opinion, the answer is an emphatic yes. The question to ask yourself is: “can this group have an impact on the success or failure of the plan we are making?” If the answer is yes, they are stakeholders, and you would be wise to seek their input.

What is the right way to engage employees as stakeholders? There are many ways to do this well. Here are some guidelines:

·       Identify your stakeholders. Try a technique like mind-mapping to capture your thoughts. Are all employees similarly important to the change, or might there be different departments or teams which need special attention?

·       Invite them in. Let your employees know that they have a stake in the success or failure of your change effort, and that their participation in both planning and executing the change is important to you. You can engage employee stakeholders in several ways: surveys, interviews, focus groups and town hall style meetings are some which work well.

·       Clarify the Decision Making Process. Will you use a consensus method to decide how to change? Or will the CEO make the decision after input from multiple stakeholder groups? Understanding the decision making approach clarifies expectations and reduces angst for everyone involved.

·       Seek Two-Way Dialog. Resist the temptation to “tell” your audience what is happening. Share your plans and ideas, but make time for inquiry and challenges. Your plan will ultimately be a stronger one if you have input from various perspectives.

·       Make room for quiet voices. All groups include introverts, but not all forums are well suited to hearing from them. In a group setting, consider techniques like using stickers to multi-vote, or pausing to ask all members of the group to journal their ideas before speaking. In this way, you can be sure that the extroverts don’t dominate the dialog.

·       Dig Deeper. Perhaps you are considering a controversial change, but your audience is awfully quiet. It is tempting to think “oh, this change will be easier than I thought.” But if your gut tells you that there is more on people’s minds than is being expressed, see if you can prod a little deeper. You might try naming the elephant --“if I were faced with this kind of change, I might be worried whether my job is safe,” to see if it prompts more discussion. As a facilitator, you can demonstrate with your actions what it is safe to talk about, and by so doing, you will hear concerns and issues you can become better prepared to address.

·       Follow Up. After you initially ask for input, there is an implied agreement that you will let stakeholders know what decision was made. Make sure to close the loop! Larger change efforts benefit from multiple touch points with stakeholders throughout the process.

Your own employees are key stakeholders to organizational change, as well as a rich source of ideas and input. Tapping this resource will enrich your strategic plan and your relationship with your employees—your biggest organizational asset--and will improve the likelihood that your new strategy will succeed.

As leaders, we need to be learners so we are always improving the way we contribute. What techniques have you successfully used to engage employees in strategic planning? What mistakes have you made from which others can learn?