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How inclusive is your stakeholder engagement?

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Project professionals all set out to deliver successful projects, but the list of issues derailing projects and programmes outnumbers the digits on our hands. In a context of increasing complexity, de-risking to deliver ‘great’ outcomes is an overarching concern for all, regardless of project size.

Tackling complex projects necessitates successfully working with others

Stakeholders emerge as a common thread linking issues that impact on project outcome. The position of people at the heart of project success is already well recognised, with stakeholder interaction a key cornerstone of project delivery. Effective stakeholder engagement (rather than merely management) is now recognised as essential in our approach to stakeholder strategy and delivery processes.

A common practice is to de-risk. Too often, the focus is on those stakeholders who could derail the project, despite our knowledge that risk constitutes both threats and opportunities. Another common approach is to improve efficiency and techniques – our use of tools – despite moving from stakeholder management to engagement. We map stakeholders, identify power and influence and work at shifting them from left to right – from detractors to allies. Challenged by the current pandemic, we are deploying greater levels of technology, moving to digital platforms to maintain engagement.

For those of us who lead on engagement, communication has never been optimal. Face-to-face and other ‘traditional’ engagement methods have often led to disappointment. The profile of those we engage with remains stubbornly unchanged. The louder voices still largely have distractor agendas, while the silent, ‘hard to reach’ others remain elusive.

In failing to adequately engage, we may try to reassure ourselves that ‘we did our best’ or ‘we ran out of time to consult’.

Identifying and analysing stakeholders is a key initial stage of engagement

A stakeholder, by definition, is anyone who has an interest in, or is affected by, the outcomes of the project. That could encompass almost anyone, so analysis to determine significance becomes critical.

Asking others to identify stakeholders can assist, but may be problematic. When we and others map stakeholders, past experiences and practices inform our assessments of who stakeholders are. Despite our best efforts, we still miss those stakeholders who reveal themselves at a later stage of projects.

Several project-oriented professions are adopting more inclusive practices and catapulting them into the mainstream to improve outcomes. Inclusion is a proactive endeavour, creating an environment where varied perspectives and voices are valued, heard and taken into account. There is an emotional element to inclusion and exclusion.

While inclusion in the workplace is widely accepted, the concept of inclusive stakeholder engagement is still in its infancy. Nonetheless, it reflects a novel approach to stakeholder liaison that goes beyond mapping and communicating to include co-design, benefits and value creation.

Cultivating a different mindset

Inclusive stakeholder engagement requires a paradigm shift. A different mindset will alter the nature and construction of our vision, shifting the focus to holistic sustainability as a key outcome and criterion for success. Sustainable approaches go beyond the environment: they include the social sustainability of the wider community.

Organisational and project values, priorities and goals should be linked by a common thread of inclusion. It does not end at our organisation’s front door, and failing to address it adequately has implications.

Altering perceptions of benefits

In inclusive projects, the vision and processes work for all to make delivery easier, faster and less complicated.

Consider the value of benefits realisation across varying timelines – immediate and sustainable. More iterative approaches to benefits enable us to be more reflective in our definition of outputs – to be more adaptive. For sustainability, environmentally neutral outputs are anticipated, and environmentally positive outputs even better.

Ask yourself: are we harnessing the full possibilities of benefits for external stakeholders? To what extent are these stakeholders defined within or defining the benefits?

Co-design by end users and local communities is becoming standard

This is especially true within professions such as urban design, and sectors such as healthcare. Stakeholder engagement is a continuum and the dial is shifting. As project managers, will our role eventually become that of facilitator? Arup’s 2017 Future of Project Management study foresees professionals gradually being replaced ‘by increasingly capable systems’, with irreplaceable human core elements, such as leadership, integration of specialists and ethical behaviour, remaining.

Embedding social value

Ethical behaviour underpins the concept of social value and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Current thinking and practices are yet to fully embed these, although some projects utilise knowledge-transfer to communities and training through apprenticeships and jobs. Mindsets can restrict how innovatively social value and sustainable benefits are delivered through projects. Inclusion as an integral element of project vision alters this, transforming both process and outcome.

Too often, the focus is on outcome without fulling tapping the opportunities available through the strategic vision and process. Inclusively engaging a wider definition of stakeholders, and redefining who should be positively affected by our projects, generates a wider buy-in, sense of inclusion and energy, driving project success – and ultimately delivering more sustainable benefits.

Examples of inclusive stakeholder engagement 

  • For London 2012, inclusive change was a key element of the winning bid. London’s diversity was harnessed fully, processes carefully designed and stakeholders engaged to benefit from both project/delivery process and the outcome. Its impact has extended beyond London.
  • In Finland, a road tunnelling project facing local objection worked more inclusively and transparently with its local stakeholder community (project documents were even accessible online). Its adopted Alliance delivery process enabled more inclusive working with suppliers. Reduced cost through innovation, delivery ahead of time and local buy-in were key benefits. A community day at completion ensured locals walked through the tunnel before any cars.
  • The London Borough of Croydon engaged early with rarely heard groups, such as young parents and teenagers, on a regeneration project. Their hugely revealing input is overturning some commonplace assumptions about safety outdoors.
  • An NHS toolkit now enables people to co-design projects. Service transformation projects no longer occur without patient and focus group input, responding to the ‘nothing about us without us’ concept.

Inclusion intersects with stakeholder engagement. Delivery of great project outcomes, and embedding social value sustainably, is unlikely to occur without inclusion. Project professionals should seek and embrace the opportunities of inclusive stakeholder engagement.

Elizabeth Harrin’s new book on stakeholder engagement, aligned to the APM Body of Knowledge 7th edition, is available now. 

Unitone Vector/


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