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Stake Holder Leadership - Bear in Mind: Loving the Champion Bear

Posted by Michael Nir on Apr 23, 2014 |

In her children book: “Bear Feels Sick“, author Karma Wilson tells the story of how a sick bear is playing with his friends to cater to his needs, having them perform many chores including cooking, preparing tea and keeping him company. The bear remains seemingly ill throughout the entire book until he is miraculously cured. Most of the book describes how his charade convinces the otherwise envious raven, the badgering badger, and the ever so efficient mole to continuously and wholeheartedly tend to his needs.

While I believe that Karma Wilson didn’t consider her children’s book an analogy to influencing stakeholders in the matrix organization, there is one important lesson that this book teaches us: the significance of stakeholder management. The shrewd, sick bear skillfully identifies the stakeholders, analyzes their attitudes, and convinces them in a passive aggressive way to help out while he is relaxing in his sick bed. And while I’m certainly not championing the idea that stakeholder management should be done this way, there are some small but significant takeaways to understand from “Bear Feels Sick.”

Much can be learned from this story. This particular chapter1 presents a discussion about stakeholder management—investigating the concept that stakeholders differ in their perceptions—and introduces a strategy for influence. Let me first give you my definition of the term “stakeholders”: They are a person or organization (e.g. customer, sponsor, performing organization, or the public) that is actively involved in the project, or whose interests may be positively or negatively affected by the execution or completion of the project. A stakeholder may also exert influence over the project and its deliverables. (PMBOK® Guide)

In this section from the book, I will be using the term stakeholder in a boarder sense – i.e. any individual who can impact your work and activities, which can also be non-project related.

Keeping the Nice Bears Close to You

The first step in building support within the greater stakeholder community is identifying the various stakeholder groups and individuals impacting the project/activities and analyzing their attitudes. Identifying stakeholders can be completed alone or with a small team. Since analyzing them is a sensitive undertaking, it makes sense to perform the activity with the kernel project team, ensuring the output of the analysis remains within the team.

The objective of stakeholder analysis is to produce a list of stakeholders that might influence the outcome of the project. Once the list of stakeholders is produced, each one is assessed according to his power and interest. Power, in this regard, is the stakeholder’s ability to impact various aspects of the project either positively or negatively. Interest is defined as the level of concern the stakeholder has with the project. Both the power and interest of the stakeholders are assessed in respect to the task, activity, and project… even towards a specific project objective.

The widely used axes of power and interest have four quadrants:

  1. High power high interest stakeholders
  2. High power low interest stakeholders
  3. Low power high interest stakeholders
  4. Low power low interest stakeholders

Experience shows that project managers and teams who do use this tool usually perform the analysis once at the start of the project and do not revisit the analysis later on. This undermines the value which can be realized using the tool. Stakeholder analysis is an ongoing task, which should be performed on a monthly basis in order to increase the opportunities to influence stakeholders. What’s more, throughout the project, new stakeholders become relevant while stakeholders who were part of earlier analysis might become irrelevant. The analysis of power and interest is also an input for communication planning. Each quadrant in the stakeholders’ assessment grid has a directive explaining how to manage the stakeholders within the specific quadrant. The general guidelines for each quadrant are as follows:

  1. High power high interest stakeholders – manage closely
  2. High power low interest stakeholders – keep satisfied
  3. Low power high interest stakeholders – keep informed
  4. Low power low interest stakeholders – monitor with minimal effort

The project team needs to detail further each general guideline into specific communication tasks and activities, which differ from team and project. Note that direction to closely manage stakeholders in the first quadrant relates not only to the extent of communication activities performed; it also defines the intensity of the process itself. Stakeholders who are managed closely are also queried often on how much communication they would prefer. Therefore, it might happen that some stakeholders in this group receive fewer reports and updates compared with members in the keep-informed quadrant, since they opted to receive less information.

This is important to understand: Manage closely. Similar to the other communication guidelines in the grid, this doesn’t imply that stakeholders receive more bits of communication; it means the stakeholders are allowed a customized communication approach compared with the stakeholders in the other quadrants.

PMBOK Guide - Fourth Edition, p.249

The stakeholder analysis grid detailed above, while useful in the context of creating a general understanding of stakeholders’ support, lacks a more in-depth view of the actual relationships and forecasted behaviors of the stakeholders, towards the specific efforts.

To understand these better, an alternative view on the analysis of stakeholders is suggested. In this view, stakeholders are analyzed based on their perceived support— implicit or explicit. A four quadrants grid is likewise employed with two axes as seen below. The axes are trust and agreement. Stakeholders are divided into four groups: allies, opponents, accomplices, and adversaries.

Stakeholders in the Allies quadrant are the advocates of the project effort, having both trust in the project team and being in agreement with the objectives and the approach used to manage the project. They are supporting unequivocally, and will provide assistance when required, help when needed and advice when requested (sometimes even when it’s not requested).

Stakeholders in the Opponents quadrant are openly and objectively criticizing elements of the project or the effort. They are, to a degree, not in agreement with some objectives of the project and might be questioning the methods employed by the team to achieve the objectives. However, there is mutual trust between the project team and these stakeholders which translates into ‘fair play’ in solving disagreements. The project leader and the team are certain that disagreements can be solved in a reasonable, unbiased and honest approach. While these stakeholders aren’t unequivocally supporting the process and the objectives, they prove to be a much required judicious group of stakeholders who can objectively challenge project decisions.

Stakeholders in the Accomplices quadrant are outwardly accepting and collaborating with the project team in the process and supporting the objective. These stakeholders are also said to be giving lip service. It might seem that they are in agreement; however, since there is little trust between the project team and these stakeholders, the continued support isn’t granted. The project leader and the team can’t depend on the seeming support that is displayed by this stakeholder group, as it can easily be substituted by sharp defiance as soon as the environment changes or as soon as the project team is out of hearing range. This makes the accomplices group of stakeholders quite dangerous. Project teams and managers are advised to build trust with these stakeholders.

Stakeholders in the Adversaries quadrant are un-accepting and do not collaborate with the project team in the process. They are also in disagreement with the objective. There is an evolving conflict building between the project team and this group of stakeholders. The project leader and the team can’t depend on receiving support from this group, which tends to employ manipulative means in propagating disagreement. Naturally, the group of adversary stakeholders is the most difficult to influence and lead. Theoretically, project teams and managers can invest time and effort to build trust and agreement with these stakeholders. Practically these might be wasted efforts, leading to the opposite result (see more below). Actually, by and large—project teams and managers included—invest too much effort in persuading and convincing the adversary stakeholder group with little valuable results. The focus on this group develops into an open hostile conflict which resonates with the other stakeholder groups and can create a landslide in the overall level of support.

Our behavior of increased focus on the adversary group is human and evident in many similar interactions. Imagine a teacher in a classroom where among 30 pupils, three are in distrust and conflict with the teacher. In most cases, more than half of the teachers’ attention is given to these pupils at the expense of the others. Obviously, the teacher needs to create an environment supporting learning in the class; however, the focus on those disturbing the class is counterproductive as it provides opposite results.

So why do we focus on the adversary group? Psychologically speaking, we have a need to be accepted and loved (or at least liked); we find it extremely difficult to be in a position where people are un-accepting of us. We go to great lengths to receive appreciation and support from groups of people who are in disagreement. Take a minute to reflect on your efforts in gaining liking and appreciation from everyone, investing great efforts to please those who are in hostile conflict and distrusting disagreement at the expense of investing your time building positive relationships with others more supporting individuals. Letting go of our explicit need for unanimous all-encompassing acceptance isn’t an easy task and requires a mental and cognitive shift in how we perceive ourselves and our interaction with the environment in which we operate. Achieving this improved psychological condition enables moving away from focusing on those who aren’t accepting us, but rather, investing time and effort in those who are supporting or those who haven’t made up their mind yet – more on that later. In the teacher example above, the class, the teacher and the learning environment would benefit greatly from focus on the main group of pupils who are sitting on the fence, so to speak, waiting to see how the conflict between the teacher and the adversary pupils plays out before deciding which side to choose.

Notwithstanding the two models for stakeholder analysis presented so far, at the outset of each stakeholder interaction such as a kickoff meeting, a conference call, a town-hall meeting or similar gatherings, there are three main attitudes apparent. These attitudes are easily observed by reading body language, words used and tone of voice. Roughly speaking there are stakeholders who immediately support, those who are against and a big group who are, so to speak, sitting on the fence. Stakeholders, who are fence sitters, are waiting to see how things will play out. They haven’t decided yet who to support and are making up their minds.

As a general rule of thumb in any interaction that you might have, approximately 5% of the stakeholders will be against, 5% of the stakeholders will be in favor, and the remaining 90% of stakeholders will either fence sitters or paying some amount of lip service.

As detailed above, placing emphasis and overly focusing on those against, is a fatal mistake in building your support coalition and your informal power base. It is also the most common mistake.

I wish to repeat that: do not forget that usually when trying to build a support coalition you will put too much emphasis on the stakeholders who are against, which will lead to a failed effort.

In an analogy to the teacher example, imagine that you are giving a presentation to 100 participants. The presentation is about some change project in marketing that will greatly impact the manufacturing and maintenance, operations, IT, engineering and sales departments. This is a high profile project with many interests. You are holding a formal kickoff presentation and it is vital that you gain support for this endeavor. As explained above, about 5 to 10 participants will be totally in favor of your approach, about 5 to 10 participants will be totally against whatever you propose. The remaining participants have not made up their mind yet. This presentation is your opportunity to build a coalition and to influence the stakeholder community to support the project as you’re moving forward.

Most presenters will aim their influence efforts at those opposing, sometimes engaging in verbal confrontations with them during and after the presentation. This is folly, since you’re unlikely to gain much by arguing with this stakeholder group. The byproduct of discussing the merits with them is that some ‘fence sitters’ will actually join the group of naysayers. This is a common outcome which mirrors human tendency to side with the underdog; in this case if you are leading the presentation and have the stage, the underdog will be the blockers.

What you want to do is to speak partly to the supporters and partly to the fence sitters. You wish to create an explicit path of trust for those sitting on the fence to become supporters.

Tip: You can easily recognize those supporting, those against and the fence sitters. As a rule of thumb those who are supporting will be sitting in the front rows, and those opposing and blocking in the back rows.

1The above is an excerpt from: Project Management: Influence and Leadership Building Rapport in Teams

About the Author

Michael Nir - President of Sapir Consulting - (M.Sc. Engineering) has been providing operational, organizational and management consulting and training for over 15 years. He is passionate about Gestalt theory and practice, which complements his engineering background and contributes to his understanding of individual and team dynamics in business. Michael authored 8 Bestsellers in the fields of Influencing, Agile, Teams, Leadership and others. Michael's professional background includes significant expertise in the telecoms, hi-tech, software development, R&D environments and petrochemical & infrastructure industries. He develops creative and innovative solutions in project and product management, process improvement, leadership, and team building programs.

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