A process-based approach to influencing stakeholders and clients

In his previous blog ‘Meeting the challenge of Influencing Stakeholders’, David Atkinson mapped out the role of the ‘Trusted Advisor’ and the ‘client’.  In this second blog in his series on influencing skills, David introduces the ‘Stakeholder Engagement Cycle’, a process that can be used by professional advisors with their stakeholders and clients to guide their practice.

Working as a Trusted Advisor is a difficult task.  The manager (or client) has the executive authority to make a decision and wants to make a good decision.  Advisors have the specialist, technical knowledge to support him or her to make that good decision – but they don’t have the executive authority. They are also dependent on their personal attributes and skills to influence effectively under these circumstances but technical and interpersonal skills combined will still be insufficient to guarantee successful outcomes. Advisors need a process which the advisor and client can follow as they work together towards achieving their aims.

Trusted Advisors who adopt a process-based approach and become competent at using it will achieve better outcomes with their clients because they will have greater clarity about where they are now, where they have come from and, most importantly, the best way to lead the process forward to next. In effect, their advice and support will be under more control than it otherwise would be.

The Stakeholder Engagement Cycle

When we are thinking about influencing without executive authority its helpful to begin by thinking in terms of the client (the manager) facing a problem or issue surrounded by his or her team and looking to the Trusted Advisor for advice on what to do about the situation.  The advisor is intervening into the situation.

In these circumstances, the influencing process can be divided into seven key phases, beginning with a successful entry and ending with a good withdrawal.  I like to think of these phases as being a part of an underlying cycle of activities, which I call the Stakeholder Engagement Cycle.  Individually, each phase requires both careful thought and excellent skills, whilst the management of the process as a whole and the relationship between the different phases is crucial in determining the overall effectiveness of the work.

The seven phases of the Stakeholder Engagement Cycle are shown below:

  1. Gaining Entry
  2. Data Generation
  3. Data Analysis and Diagnosis
  4. Developing a Joint Improvement Strategy
  5. Implementing the Strategy
  6. Evaluating the Success
  7. Making a Good Withdrawal

1.      Gaining Entry

The first phase of the Stakeholder Engagement Cycle is about the Trusted Advisor gaining entry with the clientThis involves building and then maintaining a good relationship with the client so that there is enough trust for the client to talk in detail about their situation.  It includes making the initial contact to discuss the situation, hearing about the clients concerns and areas of interest for improvement, presenting information about how the advisor can help, agreeing initial definition and scope of the work and getting clear agreement about the next steps.  It will require the advisor to be able to develop useful insights and an initial strategy, which will probably begin with finding out more from other people who work in the area.

Success in the entry phase requires the advisor to develop and use a number of specific skills and these include the ability to build trust, to reduce any anxiety the client might have about inviting the advisor in, and establishing sufficient credibility to get to the next stage.  It requires an ability to make a diagnosis of the readiness to change of the client (and his or her wider organisation) and the ability to define and secure agreement to the initial contract.

2.      Data Generation

The second phase, data generation, is primarily aimed at creating a process which will enable the client to really understand their situation.  Traditionally we thought of this as data collection but, in Four Pillars, we believe that data collection represents an advisor-centred approach where the advisor collects information so that they can solve the problem.  We prefer a client-centred approach where we generate information jointly with the client, which we can use to think about the problem together.

In this context, data might include the story of what has happened so far, the opinions of people connected to the situation or even hard data from key performance indicators about what is happening.

3.      Data Analysis and Diagnosis

The third phase of the Stakeholder Engagement Cycle, data analysis and diagnosis, is about the advisor and client examining the data about the situation and evaluating it, often against some external frameworks or models, in order to develop hypotheses about the underlying causes of the situation.  If done well, it will provide a firm foundation on which to build a strategy for improvement.

It also offers the opportunity for the advisor to revisit his or her diagnosis of readiness to change, having now had access to a much greater cross-section of people and information.

4.      Developing a Joint Improvement Strategy

Phase four, developing a joint improvement strategy, aims to bring the advisor and the client together to consider the diagnosis and then to design the strategy to lead to an improvement in performance.  This should also include clear measures of how the changes impact upon the situation to ensure that the actions are leading to an improvement.

The key concept here is the notion of joint strategy development.  On the one hand the advisor will need to have expertise in a range of interventions that could be used to take things forward but it is essential that the process is one in which the client contributes fully and remains in charge of the direction and pace of change.

In developing strategy, the diagnosis of readiness to change and a consideration about how best to increase the readiness to change of the organisation as a whole are essential if the actions are to achieve their objectives.

5.      Implementing the Strategy

The fifth phase, implementing the strategy, is all about putting the improvement plan into action.  It is essential to understand from the start that it is unlikely that the planned strategy will work perfectly and that it will be necessary to re-cycle around joint strategy planning again and again to deal with particular difficulties as they arise.

6.      Evaluating the Success

This phase includes all those activities aimed at checking to see whether the changes have led to an improvement.  Methods of evaluation might include surveying customer satisfaction or staff morale through to the use of statistical process control (SPC) to measure ongoing process performance.

Often, the evaluation phase, rather than leading to withdrawal, is the precursor to a new round of activity, with the process recycling back into fresh data generation in the existing area of activity or movement into another area where ‘entry’ must effectively be secured all over again.

7.      Making a Good Withdrawal

Finally, making a good withdrawal, is all about the advisor being able to withdraw from the client’s situation confident that he or she is leaving behind a viable, self-improving system that has achieved significant gains from the work that has been undertaken, and is better able to continue to improve into the future.

Whilst this is the last of the phases, it is useful to plan from the very beginning of the work how best to manage withdrawal so as to ensure that the client is delighted with the help that they have received and is able to carry on without what has now become the trusted advisor.

In closing….

The Stakeholder Engagement Cycle provides a flexible, dynamic and powerful process for guiding an advisor as they work with their clients. In adopting this process, not only will advisors be more effective in influencing, they are more likely to be successful in genuinely helping their clients achieve the successful outcomes they desire.

In the third blog in this series I will discuss the skills and attributes required of advisors if they are going to be trusted by clients to truly make a difference.

In the meantime, if you would like to know more about how to bring the Stakeholder Engagement Cycle into your practice, get in touch and I will be delighted to help.

By David Atkinson

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