Leveraging Stakeholder Engagement for Sustainability

Those in sustainability leadership positions at their organizations understand the importance of stakeholders in achieiving sustainability results. For example, business environmental gurus Daniel Esty and Andrew Winston in ‘Green to Gold’ recommend stakeholder mapping as a key component to a sustainability business strategy (http://www.eco-advantage.com/). This stakeholder mapping is largely geared towards an organization identifying new sources of business value, especially product innovation to benefit both the organization and the planet. However, Daniel Esty as a keynote speaker at ACCO’s (Association for Climate Change Officers) Rising Seas Summit (see http://www.risingseassummit.org/) acknowledged that product innovation alone will not be enough to address the environmental challenges that have been put in motion by human activity such as climate change. While mapping and surveying stakeholders to inform product innovation is necessary and produces value for organizations, it is time to do more. It is time to leverage stakeholder engagement for bigger and more strategic sustainability results.

All organizations need new and useful ideas and collaborative approaches to contribute in a bigger and more strategic way to a more sustainable future. Once new and useful ideas are uncovered, chances are that the organization will need to motivate targeted stakeholders to make changes needed to move towards a more sustainable future. Once targeted stakeholders are motivated to change in order to move towards a more sustainable future, specific actions that your organization and the key stakeholders need to take must be identified and prioritized. The good news is that all of these goals can be accomplished through structured stakeholder engagement. The bad news is that stakeholder surveys are insufficient to accomplish these goals. There are three key things that structured stakeholder engagements can accomplish complementary to and beyond what stakeholder surveys can do for you.

First let’s talk about what is meant by a structured stakeholder engagement. To begin with, an unstructured stakeholder engagement tends to be divergent and inconclusive in nature. In contrast, a structured engagement is organized around an outcome and deliverables with a process framework designed to make best use of participants’ time in achieving the outcome and deliverables. An example of a process framework is creative problem solving (http://www.creativeeducationfoundation.org/our-process/what-is-cps) which makes use of both divergent and convergent thinking and creates the conditions for free flow of thought towards one or more task statements.

The first key thing that a structured stakeholder engagement can do for you that surveys cannot is enable action. A structured stakeholder engagement conducted by a talented facilitator can create both a cognitive and emotional connection to a topic. In contrast, surveys can be designed to give representative information on a topic for a given target population but cannot create intentional emotional connection. There is a known complex and strong relationship between emotions and behavior. In fact, the role of emotions is strong enough for us to take action that is not in our best interests. There are many examples of this. For example, many Americans chose to drive over flying after 911 out of fear because they thought they would be safer. However, science tells a different story. From the prologue of Daniel Gardner’s book ‘Science of Fear’ (see http://scienceline.org/2008/10/policy-olson-science-of-fear-book-review/):

An American professor calculated that even if terrorists were hijacking and crashing one passenger jet a week in the United States, a person who took one flight a month for a year would have only a 1 in 135,000 chance of being killed in a hijacking – a trivial risk compared to the annual 1 in 6,000 odds of being killed in a car crash.

A talented facilitator can engender the emotional and cognitive connections that participants need to help them take the desired action following the engagement. A survey doesn’t have the influence of other perspectives and the personal attention that an in-person engagement has for participants to make the emotional and cognitive connections that inform behavior and actions.

The second key thing that a structured stakeholder engagement can do for you that surveys cannot is enable creative thinking. The right climate or interpersonal environment is needed to promote creative thinking. The Creative Problem Solving Group Inc. (CPSB, see http://www.cpsb.com/) has created a measure called the Situational Outlook Questionnaire (SOQ, see http://www.soqonline.net/) that distinguishes between a healthy climate that promotes creative thinking and an unhealthy climate. CPSB has validated SOQ against measures of organizational innovation including the ability to develop, deliver, and commercialize new and successful products and services for and to the market. The nine dimensions of SOQ can be managed by a trained facilitator in a stakeholder engagement to optimize the conditions for creative thinking. On the other hand, surveys rarely create something new and useful because the state of mind of those being surveyed is unknown and surveys are designed to extract data (perceptions, beliefs, experiences, knowledge, information, and so on), not create solutions and approaches.

The third key thing that a structured stakeholder engagement can do for you that surveys cannot do is motivate change. Change begins with a change in thinking where it can progress to a change in behavior and eventually to impact through concerted actions and collective behavior. A trained facilitator can not only help participants think in new ways, but can guide the group to discover intrinsic motivation for supporting change. Social scientists have studied the importance of intrinsic motivation, a desire to do something that matters, over extrinsic motivation, financial reward, in enhancing performance of tasks that have a cognitive component. Daniel Pink gives a TED Talk on ‘The Puzzle of Motivation’ (see http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_pink_on_motivation?language=en) that summarizes the science of motivation. While change is hard, if the change can address an important challenge and intrinsic motivation is present for those who need to change, then the likelihood the change will be implemented is high.

Surveys have a valuable and important role to play in providing representative feedback on sustainability programs that in-person engagements can’t play. However, many have demonstrated the value of combining surveys with in-person engagements as complementary approaches for deeper findings and changing behavior (see http://www.personal.psu.edu/faculty/f/k/fkw/rsoc597/Wolff.pdf). If you would like to learn more about engaging stakeholders to advance your organization’s approach to sustainability, contact Valerie Patrick at Fulcrum Connection LLC (412-742-9675 or valerie.patrick@fulcrumconnection.com).