A Heard of Elephants: Managing Gnarly Stakeholder Issues

I do a lot of stakeholder management, either building teams, helping to change how organisations work, or getting conflicting groups to collaborate. And it’s staggering how often the agenda and subsequent outcome of the initiative is driven, not by the leaders, but by the elephants in the room. The inconvenient, invisible and usually surly metaphorical pachyderms that people know are there, but aren’t willing to deal with.

But you have to. In fact, if you want to do this well, start with the elephants.

Why? Because until you do, nobody listens, nothing moves, nothing changes, and nothing sticks. It doesn’t matter how ‘bought-in’ people tell you they are or how convincing your logic is — the elephants are fuelled by emotion, and until those needs are recognised, they are unlikely to shift. So, from my extensive experience in this space, here are a few golden but often overlooked rules for pachyderm pacification and persuasion. When done well, they can be transformative:

  1. Without candour, there is no trust.
    And without trust, there is no sustainable change or collaboration. You must discuss the elephants. Openly, transparently and non-judgementally. This also means that as the facilitator, your obligation is to the outcome of the room, not to the agenda of the person who’s sponsoring or funding it.
  2. No one changes their stance until they feel heard.
    Not tick-box consulted — heard. Your stakeholders have a good reason for doing what they’re doing, have their own priorities, and may know better than you why your idea ain’t so great. Why would they prioritise your agenda if you won’t even listen to theirs? And how do you expect to really understand and frame the problem you’re trying to solve without understanding what’s going on for the people experiencing it?
  3. All parties are acting with positive intent.
    People rarely set out to be assholes, no matter how it might appear. They’re either trying to achieve something more important to them (though not necessarily in an elegant manner) or to achieve your objective in the best way they know how, which might not be what you had in mind.

So if you really want people to collaborate towards a significant goal, assume positive intent, seek out opinions and listen openly, with loads of curiosity and with zero judgement. I am always staggered by how open people are and how much they’re willing to say — just because someone is finally listening to them and paying them the courtesy and respect of asking for their viewpoint, and giving them a chance to contribute in a way they see as valuable.

When you’ve done this, then bring everyone involved together, and bring all the elephants into the room for debate. By all means redact authorship of the comments if appropriate, but don’t change the words or leave out the uncomfortable bits. People need to see that their opinion has been fairly represented. Make it OK to talk about the ugly, inconvenient stuff. Find the patterns, surface the questions and implications they raise, then facilitate an open and robust conversation about what it all means and leads to.

I call this process having a ‘Parade of Elephants’, and have done it in many different contexts, from working with disparate groups and teams to entire companies. It even works negotiating with your kids about the chores. It has never failed to change the tone of the conversation and agenda for the better, often flipping a hostile group confrontation to an open, constructive, and even collaborative1 conversation in the course of a few hours, often opening up all sorts of new and previously unconsidered possibilities. Which, when you consider how many months or years some of these conflicts have been around, is pretty impressive.

Does it mean you always get what you want? Not necessarily. Particularly if your goal is self-interested, ill-advised or just not important enough for them to prioritise. Or (as often happens in organisations) if you’re encouraging one thing while rewarding the opposite. But at least you’ll have a chance to revise your objective to something that might actually work and create opportunities to do something even better.

Elephants take up a lot of space, and wreak havoc when pissed off. Give them the attention they deserve, so they can move on. When you leave the elephants in the room, there’s no room for progress.

How do you deal with the elephants you encounter?

Not always immediately — it isn’t magic

And for an in-depth look at more tools to help you engage with your stakeholders better, download my free eBook: Stick It! Mo’s pro’s guide to getting more out of classic Design Thinking tools

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