The Secrets Revealed by a Stakeholder Map
Which stakeholders should you bring into the project coalition?
ave you ever initiated a project at work, only to discover that you had
completely misunderstood the way decisions were made?
More often than you realize, important decisions are not made in boardrooms or official committee meetings, but over dinner and at the golf course. In fact, these decisions are frequently influenced by people whom you weren’t even aware of.
Finding out about such occurrences can often take the wind out of your sails, leading you to nod in agreement as colleagues speak bitterly about office politics. Look, the cold hard truth is that these dynamics are part of human nature, going back to pre-historic times, and exist to a certain extent in all organizations. However, you have to fight back the urge to throw your arms up in resignation, because if you have a better understanding of the human dynamics in your work environment, you can make much more of an impact.
Fortunately, there is a wealth of knowledge and experience in navigating this reality. Social organizers are particularly good at this because their success depends so much on understanding the social interactions and power dynamics in their community.
For this reason, they regularly assess their community, or “map the playing field.” When it comes to your own work activities or projects, you can map the playing field by asking two questions:
Who Are the Individual People Involved?
One of the biggest causes of a project’s failure is that project leaders launch the project with little to no thought about how people will react 1 and no plan to mitigate the potential hurdles that lie ahead. High-performing project leaders, however, think like social organizers: hyper-aware of the individual people in the “playing field” and how each person might react to and influence the project.
For many projects at work, the “playing field” extends beyond colleagues in your own organization, and includes customers, contractors, external partners, etc.
Here are three commonly used variables that help you analyze individual people at work:
Relevance – How much a person would be impacted by the project and/or how much a person would impact the project through their decisions and actions.
Agreement & Commitment – Whether a person supports or opposes the project idea, how strongly that person feels and, therefore, how willing they are to take action to help the project succeed.
Are there Other variables?
Let’s say you worked in a government agency and had an idea about how to streamline a process that was too bureaucratic. Depending on the structure of your agency and the external environment, it is possible that not all people would be impacted by your project idea. In order to be efficient with your organizing time and effort, you would want to start by identifying the people who are most relevant to your project idea, your formal project “stakeholders.”
Definition of a Stakeholder
But how do you determine a person’s relevance to a project idea? There are two ways:
Someone is relevant when the project would directly alter their performance goals, work routines, and/or their ability to perform.
Someone is relevant when they could have a direct impact on how the project is implemented (or if it is implemented)...
because they will be the ones carrying it out
because they have information that is valuable to the project's success
because they can influence how it is prioritized and/or staffed
A person's relevance can be assessed on a scale of low, medium, and high. All people who are directly relevant to a project (medium to high) are its "formal stakeholders" and should be brought into the project coalition.
Although there are two ways to determine someone’s direct relevance to a project, it is often measured as a single variable
When determining people's relevance to your project idea, you will discover that certain formal stakeholders have substantially more formal power than everyone else. People can wield formal power in various ways, most often by:
Approving formal requests
Assigning formal responsibility to employees
Allocating financial resources
Depending on the size and structure of your organization (and external work environment), you may find numerous people with varying degrees of formal power. However, when it comes to your project idea, in most cases only a handful of people are both directly relevant and have significant formal power: senior managers and members of any steering committee with the power to approve your project idea. These individuals are “key formal stakeholders” and should be core members of your project coalition.
Formal structure as a guide to formal Power
Once you know who the formal stakeholders and key formal stakeholders are, you need to find out what they think about your project idea. Which leads us to our third variable.
Agreement & Commitment
You likely know from experience that the viability of a project depends heavily on how many formal stakeholders—especially key formal stakeholders—agree with the project idea. However, while agreement is important, it’s not enough. Knowing that a stakeholder thinks your idea to streamline a bureaucratic process is "good" tells you nothing about whether or not that person will actually follow the new process every day, let alone encourage other people to do so. For this reason, you need to also find out how committed each person actually is to supporting the project idea.
The traditional approach is to rate each stakeholder’s agreement & commitment towards your project idea on a one-dimensional scale: ranging from “extremely supportive and committed” to ”extremely negative and resistant,” but that would be a big mistake. People are not that simple.
While a stakeholder may say that they “like” your project idea, if you were to dig deeper, you would possibly uncover a more complex opinion. Believe it or not, a person can feel both supportive (synergy) and negative (antagonism) about a project at the same time. For example, someone may like the goal of a project idea, but believe that a different approach would be much better at achieving that goal, or that the timing wasn't right. In order to capture the complexity of people's opinions, Jean-Christian Fauvet developed a straightforward visual graph: 1
People will often be open about their level of synergy (support), but more reluctant to express their level of antagonism (negativity). In many cases, they might not even be aware of their own antagonism. So, during the stakeholder mapping process, you need to proactively seek out and evaluate each person's synergy (support) for the project idea as well as their antagonism (negativity) towards the project idea. You can then map this information with a single point on the graph, giving you a more nuanced indication of their overall agreement & commitment level.
Fauvet's Levels of Synergy & Antagonism
If you're stressed by the thought of having to scientifically rate everyone's exact synergy and antagonism levels, just relax. This model doesn’t need to be applied scientifically for every kind of project. Instead, it can just help you think about each stakeholder in a more nuanced way. Of course, if you have a project idea with very high stakes (failure would be catastrophic), then it is definitely wise to rate each person with more precision.
Once you've plotted all the formal stakeholders and key formal stakeholders on Fauvet's synergy-antagonism graph, what do you do with that information? This is where it gets really interesting. Based on people's location on the synergy-antagonism graph, Fauvet identified eight possible groups that you can cluster stakeholders into, creating a “cluster map”:
Zealots: Have strong synergy for the project and no antagonism. They support the project no matter what.
Influencers: Have a strong synergy for the project and moderate antagonism. They can see the risks and understand the concerns, but definitely see the benefits.
Waverers: Their synergy and antagonism towards the project are the same. How much they support the project depends on the circumstances.
Passives: Have very low synergy and very low antagonism. They’re often in no way affected by the project (as far as they know) and just don’t care.
Moaners: Have very low synergy and some antagonism. They’ll likely drag their feet and try to get the best deal for themselves.
Opponents: Have more antagonism than synergy, but are somewhat receptive to strong pressure.
Mutineers: Have very low synergy and very strong antagonism. No amount of pressure will work with them. They will fight at all costs.
Schismatics: They have very high synergy and very high antagonism. They completely support the goals of the project, but completely disagree with the way it is being implemented. These people are rare.
In an ideal world, all the formal stakeholders would be “zealots.” Of course, life is rarely that simple. But knowing the specific cluster to which each stakeholder currently belongs can help you a lot in determining whom to focus your organizing efforts on first, and what approach is more likely to improve their agreement & commitment, and whom to leave out of the project coalition.
Again, the key formal stakeholders should be mapped early in the stakeholder mapping process. If they are not “zealots” or "golden triangles," you may not get an official project approval, no train to put on the track. Once they become members of the project's core coalition, they should be heavily involved in mapping other stakeholders.
When it comes to the remaining formal stakeholders, it is not realistic—or necessary— for them to all be "zealots," but they should all be mapped at regular intervals, before and after project approval.
Start By Focusing on "Super stakeholders"
The Relevance variable narrows down the scope of people so that you can identify the formal stakeholders, people who should be in your project coalition. The Power variable then guides you in identifying the key formal stakeholders, the people who should be core members of your project coalition. The Agreement & Commitment variable gives you information about stakeholder attitudes toward your project idea. Mapping stakeholders using these three variables is an important starting point for understanding your project idea’s current viability. However, you can’t stop here. In the next sections we'll look at relationships between stakeholders and how this influences their decisions and actions.
Cluster Map Traps
What Relationships Are There?
You likely know from experience that power is never confined to formal structures and roles. In every organization, you can spot situations in which certain individuals wield informal power by influencing the decisions and actions of the people around them. This influence can occur in a direct one-to-one relationship and it can also occur in ways that are more indirect and dispersed. Let's start by looking at relationships in which someone directly influences the decisions and actions taken by other people.
Direct One-to-One Influence
People who do not have formal power or relevance in relation to your project idea, but do influence formal stakeholders, often have unique information, experience, and/or trusting relationships. We'll refer to them as “informal stakeholders.”
Where to look for informal stakeholders
For the sake of efficiency, you only want to look for the informal stakeholders who influence the key formal stakeholders of the project. Then you want to assess their agreement & commitment and add them to the cluster map.
Including these key informal stakeholders in your cluster map gives you a much richer sense of the current viability of your project idea.
As mentioned in The Organizer’s Mindset, if the vast majority of the stakeholders in your cluster map are against the project idea (“moaners” and “opponents”), you should consider parking your idea or at least have an approach that entails a much longer organizing timeline. On very rare occasions, all your stars will align and you will find the vast majority of stakeholders in the “zealot” or “golden triangle” cluster. The most likely scenario, however, is that you will find a distribution of agreement & commitment among the various stakeholders, meaning a number of people in different clusters.
Once you have a general overview of your cluster map, you then need a more granular picture, zooming in on exactly which stakeholder is in which cluster. Social organizers understand that a cluster map is never static, that people's agreement & commitment can be shifted. The aim in organizing is to move people across the cluster map in order to expand the coalition. This requires that you do three things:
Identify which formal stakeholders influence each other the most
Identify which key informal stakeholders influence each key formal stakeholder
Draw arrows on the cluster map indicating the relationships of influence you can potentially leverage (strong relationships can be indicated with a whole line and weaker relationships can be indicated with a dotted line)
Now you have an understanding of the relationships of direct influence between the different stakeholders in the cluster map. This knowledge is extraordinarily advantageous because it helps you make tactical decisions about which exact stakeholders to focus on, in which order, and who in the project coalition should be having anchoring conversations with each stakeholder. These decisions—discussed in more detail in the Tool, The Stakeholder Mapping Process—make it possible to move certain stakeholders from one cluster to another, expanding the project coalition.
It can be highly valuable to compare the cluster map with the formal organizational structure in order to see if there is any overlap.
In many cases, it is sufficient to identify and map the direct one-to-one relationships of influence in order to build a strong project coalition, especially in smaller organizations. However, the range of influence of key informal stakeholders is often limited to only their closest relationships, so you may sometimes find yourself in a situation in which mapping the direct one-to-one relationships is not enough. This is when it is incredibly beneficial to look for stakeholders who have a more indirect and dispersed from of influence.
Indirect and Dispersed Influence
There are three common situations in which you have to take a step beyond mapping direct one-to-one relationships:
When you have a medium to large organization (250+)
When the project entails a big change
When the project is high-stakes
Large Organizations, Big Changes, High Stakes
While you might conclude that you need to map all informal stakeholders in these situations, you likely do not have the time and/or resources for such a task. Fortunately, social organizers provide another solution.
When forming an opinion on a project idea at work, most people subconsciously take their cues from other people in their informal groups and the larger informal work community. However, not all members of the informal community are equally influential. The opinions and actions of certain colleagues, "informal leaders," can have an outsized influence on the opinions and actions of others. This influence is often indirect, dynamic, and impacts a wide array of people.
Your project idea may get approved without the support of informal leaders, but the successful (sustainable) implementation of your project idea will likely come down to finding out who these people are and bringing them into the project coalition. If you want to find out who the informal leaders are in your organization (or larger work environment), look for the following people:
Organic Leaders (aka Role Models) – a colleague to whom people often turn for work-related advice during coffee breaks. 6
What makes an organic leader?
Hubs – a colleague who has noticeably more informal relationships within the informal community.
What makes a Hub?
Bridges – a colleague who spreads information between informal groups (as well as between formal units).
What makes a bridge?
When putting forward a project idea at work, it's common to overlook informal leaders because they are far from the formal centers of power and they sometimes have low direct project relevance. In contrast to the informal stakeholders who influence individual formal stakeholders, informal leaders are better positioned to influence in a way that reverberates throughout the work environment, influencing multiple formal stakeholders.
Organic leaders are especially influential, yet they tend to be either “passives” or not outspoken in their opinions on project ideas, preferring not to get caught up in work “politics,” which is why they are often overlooked in the stakeholder mapping process. However, they pay attention to what’s going on around them and if they are provoked, they may respond and unwittingly send negative signals to the people around them. Ignoring informal leaders in general, and organic leaders in particular, during the organizing phase of a project will certainly increase the risk of their becoming “moaners” or “opponents,” in the mobilizing phase and their negativity towards the project would likely spread across the informal work community.
Informal leaders who are in roles or parts of the organization that are also relevant for the project should definitely be part of the core coalition (ideally as drivers). Informal leaders who are not relevant for the project should still be included in the project coalition and informed about the project from time to time because of their influence across the organization. Once you identify the informal leaders, be sure to arrange engage conversations with them, add them to the cluster map, and then arrange anchor conversations with them in order to strengthen their agreement & commitment to the project.
Bringing informal leaders into the project coalition also increases the likelihood of reaching a critical mass that can impact the community dynamics
Understanding agreement & commitment, relevance, and power in your work environment will help you significantly in mapping stakeholders at work. Identifying the relationships of influence between various stakeholders, both direct and indirect, gives you a tremendous advantage in how you organize and build a project coalition, making it much easier to achieve long-lasting project success. Now that you understand what to look for, learn more about the essential steps in the stakeholder mapping process (coming soon)
Do you know exactly what formal power people have in your organization when it comes to approving requests, allocating financial resources, and assigning formal responsibilities to people?
How often do you think about informal relationships at work and how they influence formal decisions/actions?
Do you know who the informal leaders (organic leaders, hubs, and bridges ) are in your organization?
Pick a work-related topic that requires people to take a position and place your closest colleagues on a synergy-antagonism graph to get a more nuanced view of their opinions
Identify five informal leaders (organic leaders, hubs, and bridges) in your organization
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Etienne Wenger – Communities of Practice