A useful way to think about your stakeholders

When it comes to thinking about your stakeholders, and 'Rules of Engagement', it can be helpful to understand where they are on this spectrum.

We've developed a model to help better understand the range of stakeholders that our clients are likely to encounter when bringing forward plans for controversial yet critical infrastructure. 

Although it was created for our own internal purposes, we think it's useful for developers too.

You can think of it like a spectrum. Every single one of your stakeholders can be found somewhere on this continuum. Some will also be Enablers and Influencers, depending on timing and context.

Our model categorises stakeholders as follows:

Decided Supporters

Inclined Supporters

Interested Observers

Silent Accepters

Dispassionate Observers

Instinctive Opposers

Active Opposers

Labelling people for the sake of labelling them helps nobody, but having a system of classifying and categorising stakeholders like this - and where they are on the spectrum at any one time - can be really instructive, especially when it comes to deciding how and when to engage with them.

When thinking about your stakeholders like this, it's important to remember that people’s positions aren’t necessarily fixed - they’ll change over time dependent on a range of factors, some of which you may be able to control and others that you won’t. 

For example, if someone on your team is secretly recorded making an unhelpful throwaway comment, and Active Opposers get hold of it and share it widely with your relevant audiences, it could easily stop an Inclined Supporter from becoming a Decided Supporter. Interest will wax and wane, particularly dependent on the news cycle and whether or not your proposals are attracting a lot of media attention. 

Other factors that affect where someone sits on this spectrum include things like their income, level of academic attainment, gender, age, life experience, employment, relationship status and more besides.

One factor that is especially relevant is proximity to your development, with those nearest and most likely to experience change being among those perhaps most likely to instinctively oppose your plans, and those further away able to view the proposals more objectively.

READ ALSO: Change unites all forms of proposed infrastructure 

It's also important to recognise that some of your stakeholders will have their views shaped by other Enablers and Influencers whose orbit they come into. This can include friends and family, colleagues and other members of their home and business communities respectively.

We also sub-divide two categories even further. Decided Supporters can be split into those that have some sort of vested interest and those who do not; and Active Opposers can be split into those that are politically and/or ideologically driven and those that may just feel that they will be disproportionately and negatively impacted. 

So, how is all this relevant to deciding how and when to engage with different categories of stakeholder?

Well, firstly, there is little to no point engaging with Active Opposers that are politically and/or ideologically driven. Nothing you or anyone else says will make the slightest difference to their perception, and any time spent trying will simply be a waste of resources that would be better spent engaging with people elsewhere on the spectrum. 

There is, however, some value in engaging with the other sub-group of Active Opposers and also Instinctive Opposers who may just need some reassurance that your plans are not going to impact them badly and a say in shaping them.

You'll notice that you can generally expect there to be more opposition than support (that's just human nature) but that Silent Accepters and Dispassionate Observers dominate overall. By and large - and barring any major mistakes on your part - the Silent Accepters will mostly remain so regardless and that's a good place for them to be. What you ideally want to do is engage, educate and inform the Dispassionate Observers so that you can at least prevent them from becoming opponents of your proposals. 

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You also want to capture the attention of the Interested Observers, and convert some of them into Inclined Supporters. And then turn Inclined Supporters into Decided Supporters.

In a lot of ways, it mirrors the sales and marketing approach taken by companies that aim to sell us goods and services. 

With that comes another important lesson: in the same way that people will only buy when they have a need, stakeholders will only engage when they're ready to do so. It's not something you can force. You need to be patient, keep in touch, and ensure that stakeholders know where to contact you when they're ready to have a meaningful conversation.