Stakeholder engagement

What does sustainability mean to your organisation?

When the new editor of the environmentalist, Paul Suff, asked me to write a kind of 'how to' article on understanding what sustainability means to an organisation, it took me some time to figure out how to make it fit into a two-page article. I'm pleased with the overall framework, and the questions which it seems to all boil down to:

  • What's the best thing we can do?
  • What's the best way we can do it?
“Ask yourself what sustainability means for your organisation, because finding the answer is one of the biggest contributions you can make to building a sustainable future.  
When you ask what sustainability means for your organisation, you are effectively asking: “what’s the best thing we can do?” and “what’s the best way we can do it?”.  These questions get to the heart of the organisation’s purpose and activities, daring us to reinvent them for the world of tomorrow, where the purpose responds perfectly to the environmental and social context and is delivered with the best possible impacts.  You will find the answers in conversations with other people: colleagues, critics and stakeholders”

See what you think: access a pdf of the article here.

This is the first edition of the environmentalist under its new editorship, and you can access the whole mag for a limited time here.

How planned does engagement need to be, to be helpful to the 'convenor'?

The latest Sciencewise Bulletin asks whether constructive dialogue is possible online.

"One of the key problems in online deliberation [is] that it can result in a game of who can shout the loudest. We’ve all seen discussion threads which end in name calling, usually around a few contentious issues which had nothing to do with the original topic. It is this tendency which lies behind ‘Godwin's Law' which proposes that as an internet discussion thread grows longer, it also grows angrier and the probability of someone comparing someone else to Hitler approaches."

Colleagues from the field of 'virtual facilitation' have been adding to the debate, including on the Sciencewise-ERC Forum, considering the role of anonymity versus seeing the other contributors as real people (for example by inviting them to add a photo to their profile) and also the usefulness of active moderation.

I am working with some national government clients at the moment, helping them to plan their engagement with stakeholders around a couple of different policy-related decisions coming up later in 2011.  I stress how useful it is to be clear what they, as the 'decision makers' want to get from the engagement process.  How they can identify the stakeholders they should be in touch with, and phase the conversations so that they get information and opinions at a time when they can influence the decision-making process.

For example, some things will be decided early on, and other things can only be decided later.  There's not so much use in asking people about things which have already been decided!

But an open on-line dialogue is less easily controlled or structured by the facilitators.  Anyone with internet access can join in, and you may not know if they are who they say they are.  This lack of control makes organisers nervous.  Should it?

If it is true that "for some people, conflict is simply a source of recreation", then online dialogue could "get out of hand".  This is one of the learnings from the list of "What online communities can teach the Public Conversations Project", posted on the Public Conversations blog, by Deborah Elizabeth Finn.

What are the implications for on-line dialogue?

My experience is almost entirely in bounded, organised and above all, face-to-face engagement.  I confess to some anxiety myself about open on-line engagement - how do the relevant decision-makers make sense of the inputs? How do they steer conversations back to the issues which are yet to be decided?

Your thoughts are very welcome, here or on the Sciencewise Forum.

Wisdom in the Crowd: using CrowdWise consensus process

The New Economics Foundation is a wonderful organisation working practically and conceptually to enable us to rethink what our economy should do for us.  It calls itself a ‘think-and-do tank’. Amongst its many interests are participation and consensus-building as part of the renewal of democracy. It’s in that spirit that my near-namesake, Perry Walker (no relation) has developed the Crowd Wise tool:  a way of enabling groups to propose alternative solutions and find consensus using a combination of a slightly sophisticated voting system and discussion which allows people to take the aspects they like about a proposal and combine them to form new proposals. Sounds a bit complicated in theory!

It is much more easily understood when you try it out in practice, which is exactly what I did at the launch a couple of weeks ago.  You can try it out on 23rd September in London – see here - where our subject will be electoral reform.

Using a fictional example - the role of nuclear power

The launch was a mini-workshop where we were given some prepared options on the role nuclear power should play in a low-carbon, energy secure future.  (Of course, in a ‘real’ situation, we’d arrive at a discussion about a topic we had chosen to be present at and come with our own views which would then form the basis of the initial options.)

We were then asked to vote for the options in order of preference.  There’s a rather complex voting system, where you assign the options a preference (1st, 2nd, 3rd preference etc) although you are not obliged to rank all of them.  Depending on how many you rank, the ones you rank are assigned points.  For example, if you give a preference for five options, your 1st preference will score 5 points, your 2nd preference will score 4 points and so on.   If you decide to express a preference for only two options, your 1st preference scores 2 points and your 2nd preference scores 1 point.

The maths wizards may immediately see the significance of doing it this way: when the scores are amalgamated, it’s possible to see the degree of consensus.  In fact, the results are presented as a 'consensus coefficient', between 0 and 1.

In our nuclear power example, the results in the first round of voting varied between 0.19 (for an option based loosely on the views of the World Nuclear Association) and 0.59 (for an option based loosely on the views of Amory Lovins – demand reduction and a ‘soft energy’ path.  Since this was a demonstration workshop, we were then randomly assigned an option to brief ourselves about and represent.  We spent some time in small groups of (fictionally) like-minded people, understanding our option and discussing possible negotiating tactics. The groups were then mixed up and we had a chance to explain our option and discuss it with people who had different views.

Then came the negotiations!  This descended into horse-trading a bit, as we raced against time to find common ground with other groups.  In the end, the five options we began with were reduced to three.  One of these was from the original five, and two were new amalgams.  The consensus coefficients this time varied between 0.47 and 0.92.

The seemingly popular choice had elements that many of those supporting it did not like – perhaps this element of compromise is essential to consensus.  If we had had time for subsequent rounds, I think that more options would have emerged and perhaps what we would have ended up with would include a more precise understanding of the things that we really don’t agree about, as well as broader areas of common ground.

That’s a summary of the technical process.

Real-world example - AFC Wimbledon

We also had a fascinating insight into a real use of this tool as part of discussions about the strategic direction of a member-owned football club, AFC Wimbledon.  This process is ongoing.

The six options which the strategy group began with were generated by drawing on themes identified using a classic meta-planning technique, with the initial post-it brainstorm informed by gathering views from members and fans.

Options include “selling up to any sugar daddy who would build the club a 25,000 seater stadium” as well as something based more on the importance of the club as a community resource.

Pondering

There was a very interesting discussion afterwards, as people who might well use this technique in practice explored its features.  We wondered whether it was in itself a decision-making tool, or a tool to inform a decision.  We agreed that the provenance of the options was important and needs to be clear.  It was also clear that the expertise and information about the detail behind the options, the nuances and assumptions, need to be ‘in the room’, in order for new permutations of options to be created and for well-informed voting.

NEF stress the usefulness of this tool in consensus-building, because of the in-built incentive to find common ground: your score only goes up if more people express a preference for your option.  This is the case even if the preference is quite weak.

In my group, I observed one person who was extremely keen on ‘winning’, i.e. crafting the most popular option.  This led to him being willing to include elements of other options which our initial option completely excluded, because this would increase the common ground.  I was uncomfortable with these ‘compromises’, but perhaps that’s because I was more committed to my (fictional) position than to finding common ground.  I’m not sure whether this is a strength or a weakness of the system!

Try it out for yourself?

Perry is running another taster session so you can try out Crowd Wise for yourself.  In conjunction with AMED and NEF, there will be a workshop in London on 23rd September, from 2.00 – 4.30.  It’s just £15 (£10 for AMED and NEF members).  Find out more here.

Update

There's an interview with Perry on the Rhizome blog, here, and a description of Rhizome's use of the process (to help develop options for involving grassroots activists in organisational governance) here.

You can find case studies of CrowdWise in use here.

Jaw jaw on nanotechnology, hybrid embryos and climate-busting communities

There's a part of the UK's business ministry, BIS, which provides expert guidance on public dialogue, as well as promoting and supporting dialogue projects.  The Sciencewise Expert Resource Centre has supported dialogues on a wide range of science and technology subjects, including nanotechnology, hybrid embryos and how to make the shift to low-carbon energy sources. There's a set of principles to guide people who are setting up a dialogue, so they can keep it open and multi-directional.  Crucially, there needs to be a policy 'owner' in Government who will use the outcomes of the dialogue to help form policy.

Plenty of case studies are available on the Sciencewise-ERC website.  Since every project has to be independently evaluated, there are also evaluation reports.  And there's a team of Dialogue and Engagement Specialists (I'm part of this team) to advise.

Find out more in this article I wrote for the environmentalist, published in June 2010, "Wise up! Engaging the public in science and technology".

Community and behaviour – when critical mass makes all the difference

I was pointing people towards the six sources of influence in some behaviour change training recently, and went back to some original sources to remind myself about the distinctions between the six sources. To recap, the six sources are arranged into a two-by-three table, with ‘motivation’ and ‘ability’ divided into personal, social and structural.  In this explanation on the VitalSmarts blog the two ‘social’ sources of influence have been merged.  This bothered me – is there really so little distinction between social motivation (peer pressure) and social ability?

It seems to me that the distinction is brought most sharply into focus when critical mass is needed to make a behaviour viable.  Want to buy more locally-produced food?  A farmers’ market or a local veggie box scheme needs a critical mass of producers and customers to be viable.  Setting up a lift share scheme?  You’re going to need more than two members.  Freecycling?  Hackney Freecycle has over 17,000 members (yes, really) generating about 1,500 messages about free stuff for giving and taking a month.

Now this kind of critical mass isn’t going to be important for all the behaviours you want to change, which is probably why the distinctions isn’t so clear in some of the descriptions.  But where it is, then special attention needs to be given to recruiting the mass.

  • How will you make it as widely-known as possible?
  • How will you make it simple for people to let you know they’re up for it?
  • How will you make it easy to store information about a pool of people and then ‘activate’ them you have enough mass to start things?
  • And how will you use their good ideas and information to shape the system, so that it works for enough of them?

There’s a virtuous circle which can come into play here.  This was brought home to me by a stakeholder engagement planning meeting which I ran last week with a community organisation which has been awarded substantial funding through the Low Carbon Communities Challenge.  We did a quick brainstorm of all the non-carbon related ‘social capital’ in their village – the formal and informal organisations which bring people together and build a sense of community.  The population is about 2,000 and the group came up with over thirty formal groups, clubs or regular events (one for every 67 people!) and a host of informal groupings.  Active community organisations build community channels and hubs for conversation.  Members will have more connection with each other, and more trust, than people who are merely residents of the same place.  So a critical mass of ‘warm’ people is much easier to find.

I was bowled over by how many active societies there are, and we all felt very positive about the potential for drawing on this wonderful resource for the low-carbon activities the group has planned.

Actions we take which help build community – in our neighbourhoods or workplaces – all add to the web of interconnections which form fertile soil for future behaviour change.

Community and behaviour – when critical mass makes all the difference

I was pointing people towards the six sources of influence in some behaviour change training recently, and went back to some original sources to remind myself about the distinctions between the six sources. To recap, the six sources are arranged into a two-by-three table, with ‘motivation’ and ‘ability’ divided into personal, social and structural.  In this explanation on the VitalSmarts blog the two ‘social’ sources of influence have been merged.  This bothered me – is there really so little distinction between social motivation (peer pressure) and social ability?

Who can help me influence them? Mapping the players and pressures in a system of behaviour

Strands of work on stakeholder engagement and behaviour change have been woven together in a couple of different pieces of work I’ve been doing with public sector clients recently.  I’ve ended up developing some new frameworks and adapting some existing ones to help people clarify their aims and plan their campaigns. If you want to influence someone to change their behaviour, there are models and approaches which can help.  For example, the six sources of influence help you identify the right messages and pay attention to the surrounding context which supports and enables – or discourages and gets in the way of – the desired behaviour.

When you are working for a public body (the NHS, a Government department) and you are trying to influence the behaviour of people who you have at best a distant relationship with (mothers, or people who buys cars) then you will go through a multi-stage process:

  1. Should we be trying to encourage this behaviour change, which we see as desirable?

  2. If yes, what role(s) should we be playing (legislator, educator, convenor, funder etc)?

  3. If yes, what are the most effective ways of influencing the behaviour?

Should we encourage this behaviour change?

Given current discussions about social engineering, this question is important.  It might seem entirely obvious and uncontroversial to us that wanting to promote energy efficiency that more efficient light bulbs should be promoted.  So obvious that we don’t stop to consider possible unintended consequences or misunderstandings.

So an important early stage is to engage stakeholders in helping to inform the decision about whether to encourage a particular behaviour change at all.   For this, classic stakeholder identification and mapping techniques (e.g. see figure 1 in this paper from WWF) will help ensure that you hear from more than the usual suspects.

Stakeholders can share perspectives about the policy goals, identify which behaviours might help to achieve them, and whether action to encourage those behaviours is a good idea.

What role should we be playing?

Some public bodies draft new legislation and regulations, others deliver services.  Some enforce regulations and others provide advice and public education.  Some bring other organisations together, convening conversations and partnerships.  Others commission and fund research.  There are lots of roles that public sector organisations could play in a given situation.  Which role or roles make the most sense, in meeting the policy aim in question?

Listening to the views of stakeholders in relation to that question is enormously helpful.  And those stakeholders may be professionals who work in that field of expertise - but removed from the coal face - or they may be practitioners on the ground whose direct experience can bring a dose of reality to the conversations.

A great example of this is the Low Carbon Communities Challenge, launched on Monday 8th February.  It will (amongst other things) draw on the experiences and insights of 22 communities which are being funded to install energy efficiency kit and renewable energy equipment en masse in their areas.  They’ll also be encouraging people to adopt low-carbon behaviours.  Each community will be doing something different, guided by its particular circumstances and enthusiasms.  Excitingly, each community will also be asked to identify the barriers to and enablers of progress, in particular what government could do differently to make this kind of low-carbon push as successful as possible across England, Wales and Northern Ireland. I'm delighted to be a facilitator on this project.

What are the best ways of influencing this behaviour?

A cool analysis of the system of players and pressures which lead to the current patterns of behaviour is a good starting point, and involving a team (including some stakeholders) will help ensure that the picture built up is rich and complete.

In a workshop a few weeks ago, we used the classic ‘pestle’ headings to brainstorm the pressures and players which influence a particular behaviour which my client is interested in changing.  Let’s say that the behaviour is keeping one’s car well-maintained, so that it runs as fuel-efficiently as possible.  Specific behaviours include keeping the tyre pressure optimum, and removing the roof box when it’s not needed.

In the workshop, people identified players and pressures and wrote them on post-its, sticking them up under the headings of Political, Economic, Social, Technical, Legislative, Environmental and Other.  The headings and team-work both help to ensure that no aspect of the system is forgotten.

Once that was done, we stood back and looked at the results, and pictures were taken on a camera phone.  Then I invited people to bring the post-its to a big blank sheet of paper, and to begin mapping the relationships between the players and pressures, starting with “the most interesting” element of the system.  [The idea of asking for ‘the most interesting’ came from a book about coaching which I’ve been reading.]

One post-it was brought to the empty map, and was soon followed by others.  Lines of connection were drawn, and amid the chaos some patterns emerged.  Most importantly, the team realised that these behaviours were more like DIY and home maintenance than like ‘eco’ behaviours, so when targeting different audiences they should seek our market research which segments people according to things which are relevant to that kind of behaviour, rather than segmentations which have been developed with an environmental purpose in mind.

Mapping stakeholders for behaviour change

This brought us smoothly to looking at which stakeholders to engage as a priority, to add muscle to the campaign to  influence people to adopt (or reinforce) the desired behaviours.

Many of these stakeholders were ‘players’ identified in the earlier exercise.  Some were organisations and people who the team thought of as the system was being mapped.

As a variation on classic impact /influence matrix, and building on the ‘who can help me’ matrix which I use with organisational SD change champions, is this diagram.

Brainstormed onto post-its, stakeholders are then mapped according to the team’s view about their influence and attitude.

You then overlay the coloured ‘zones’ onto the matrix, and these are linked to typologies of engagement like the ladder of engagement.

The people and organisations which are the highest priority to engage with, are those who are highly influential and have the strongest opinions (for and against) the desired behaviour change.  In-depth engagement which involves them directly in designing and implementing the behaviour campaign will be important.

Those in the ‘enhanced’ zones need to be involved and their opinions and information sought.

Those in the ‘standard’ zone can be engaged with a lighter touch – perhaps limited to informing them about the campaign and the desired behaviour.

The workshops helped these clients to identify new stakeholders, reprioritise them, and consider more strategically who to engage and to what purpose.

Real-life facilitation : dancing with ‘preparation’ and ‘responsiveness’

With detailed preparation and planning, it can be tempting to think that the design job is over once the workshop begins. Of course, that’s not the case. As a facilitator said “people interpret questions in such different ways” and “once you’ve asked the question, it belongs to the group.” So how can you combine preparation and responsiveness?

What is the job of a river?

The latest 'engaging people' column has just been published in the environmentalist, and it's about ecosystem services and stakeholder engagement. It was a lot of fun writing this article with the erudite and ebullient Mark Everard, who I first met when working with The Natural Step.  Mark is one of that rare - but thankfully increasing - breed of technical experts who really understand the importance and value of stakeholder engagement. 

The article explores engaging people in using an ecosystems services approach to understand places, problems and solutions.

It was great to compare experiences of running stakeholder workshops which are either centred on ecosystems services, or included a nod to that way of thinking.

Mark's experience has been more extensive than mine, and he seems to have witnessed more positive resolutions.  When a farmer asked "what is the job of a river" in the workshop I was running, he gave his own answer: it's to carry water away from farmland as fast as possible.  There wasn't the opportunity to enable a longer conversation which could acknowledge watery multi-tasking, and the benefits people from it.

We all rely on ecosystem services, whether we like it or not.  We all eat food.  We all drink water.  We all breathe air.  Mostly, in a country like the UK, we just don't realise that these are ecosystem services - carrots come from the supermarket, not an ecosystem. 

But it seems to me that some people feel threatened by the weight given to ecosystem services which seem - to them - to be more 'about birds than people'.  Dialogue which enables deeper understanding of our dependence on the natural world is enormously helpful, but in my experience it is hard to engage people in this kind of conversation when they are suspicious that the process it is part of is an excuse for stopping them meeting what they see as their more immediate and direct needs.

So I'm excited to hear about Mark's successes in moving beyond mistrust.

Who can help me make this change?

The latest issue of the environmentalist includes an article I've written, entitled "who can help me make this change?".  In it, I share an approach I've used successfully in training courses and (as my daughter would say) in true life: it helps people to systematically identify key internal and external players who can help them bring about the change they want to see. If a particular person or group are crucial to making the change happen, then you want them to be supportive of it.  Ask them what they'd like to see happening, and how you can help them.  Find common ground and enlist their support.

If someone is already very supportive, but not really needed, then see what they can do to influence or recruit those who are needed.  Or enlist them to support you.

Remember, the art of engaging people to help create transformational change involves listening and letting go.

Climate change, cake and a nice cup of tea

I love World Cafe as a 'technique' to use in meetings.  And I was privileged to go to one where Peter Senge was one of the facilitators. This article - a longer version of one I wrote for the environmentalist - explains more about the technique, and the results that emerged from this meeting of a mixture of climate change professionals and activists.

How can wind farm developers win friends?

It won't have escaped your notice that not everyone in the UK loves wind turbines.  So if you're planning to add to our renewable energy capacity, you might want to think about how to involve your neighbours early on. In 2005 my article (pdf) in the environmentalist described some interesting initiatives specifically designed to help those promoting or planning wind energy developments, to engage their stakeholders.

Listen and learn...

Too often, I meet with people who see stakeholder engagement as a more sophisticated way of selling their messages to potential critics. That's not the game I'm in!

Don't bother asking people what they think if you're not willing to change your plans as a result.

This article explains why you need to act in good faith when you're listening to your stakeholders.

Update: November 2010

I've been using a new categorisation recently with good effect, courtesy of Lindsey Colbourne and Sciencewise:

  • transmit - "straight comms" - one way, putting out a message about something which has already been decided or already happened.
  • collaborate - work together to co-create an understanding of the situation, problem, possible solutions, implementation plans and so on.
  • receive - "extractive research" of the kind perfected by social researchers, market researchers etc.

There is absolutely a role for all three, and many processes or even single events will include ways of doing all three.

But if you want buy-in, and want those implementing the outcomes to want to do so, collaboration is the way.  And more fun, IMHO.

Facilitator and blogger Myriam Laberge has explored this a bit too.

Stretching the elastic

There's a neat metaphor for understanding the delicate relationship between a change maker (be they in a formal leadership position or leading from the middle) and the rest of the people in an organisation. Imagine you are connected to the rest of the organisation by a big elastic band.  As you move off in the direction of more ambitious, radical change, the elastic stretches.  The pull on the others may be just enough to get them moving and bring them with you.  You stay a bit ahead, to maintain momentum.

But if you go too far ahead, and they aren't ready to move so fast or such a distance, then the bounce goes out of the elastic, the tension rises and -ping- it snaps.

As a result, there's nothing holding you back!

But, unfortunately, there's no-one moving in your direction any more, either.  And, if you look back now, you'll see that you're alone.

This article I wrote for Croner helps you check that you're involving people properly.  They're happy for me to include the original here, as long as I say this:

"This report was published as part of Croner's Environmental Policy and Procedures, a resource designed to guide organisations through setting up an effective environmental management system.  For more information on this and other products published by Croner, go to www.croner.co.uk or telephone 020 8547 3333."

Which I'm happy to do.

Feedback works!

One of the initiatives that I'm proud and privileged to be involved with is the Sciencewise Expert Resource Centre.  There's a team of Dialogue and Engagement Specialists (DESs), and we provide mentoring and advice to government and semi-government bodies which are engaging the public in discussions and deliberations on science-related topics. Sciencewise has asked its DESs for insights - key things we've learnt from experience.  This is mine.

Essentially the message is this - when you've engaged people and asked for their views, you need to let them know how your decisions and plans have changed as a result.  Or, if you haven't changed aspects that they wanted you to, let them know why not.

This is simple and perhaps obvious, but frighteningly often isn't done well at all.  Read the insight to see what happens when it is done.

Dinosaur DAD and Enlightened EDD - alternative approaches to involving people

I spend quite a lot of my time working with clients to engage stakeholders around topics related to sustainable development. This might be working with coastal communities to figure out how to respond to rising sea levels.  It might be chewing over new approaches to public transport.  Or it could be examining how the market for supplying domestic energy can be adjusted to reward companies for selling less energy or lower carbon energy.

I also run a lot of training courses for people who want to learn more about stakeholder engagement and to develop their facilitation skills.

DAD / EDD is one of the most useful models I know for helping learners and clients understand the difference between traditional communications - Decide, Announce, Defend (Abandon) - and an approach which engages stakeholders: Engage, Deliberate, Decide.

This article I wrote for the environmentalist, published in February 2009,  explains a bit more.

Plenty more fish in the sea?

Why should environmentalists (in all our various guises) get into stakeholder engagement? Sometimes the problems are just too complex to be solved by one party acting alone.

If you can bring people together in an atmosphere of dialogue (a 'conversation with a center, not sides' as William Isaacs calls it), then the chances of finding that sweet spot where everyone's interests coincide is so much higher.

Now this is a bit like an optical illusion even in principle - the concept slips in and out of focus.  It's even harder in practice.  There are, though, some institutions and processes that get close, and have resulted in some interesting collaborative work.

Take, for example, the Marine Stewardship Council.  It's built on the idea that lots of different people have an interest in the sustainability of fish stocks, even if those interests are driven by different motivations.  It's an example of sustainable development happening because of people working together.

There's more about this in my article for the environmentalist, here (pdf).