Early in your project, you are probably used to thinking about who your stakeholders are and how you are going to manage them. I want to argue that there are always one or two you need to get to first and fast. I call them your ‘Apex Stakeholders.’
When I learned stakeholder analysis, I was taught to consider the impact of the project on stakeholders, the power they have to impact what I was doing, and their attitude to my project. From this, we could prioritise our stakeholders and plan our campaign. And there is nothing wrong with that advice.
… Except, that it misses out the nature of human beings. For example, it is not our high impact supportive stakeholders, nor our high impact antagonistic stakeholders who should dominate our early thinking: we need first to get to those who haven’t made up their minds yet. Sitting on a fence is an unstable posture, and the sooner we can influence them, the better.
Even this has little to say about the social nature of human beings, and stakeholder engagement must, surely, be a social activity. The one characteristic that dominates my current thinking about which stakeholders to prioritise is social influence. This is not, by the way, a bandwagon attitude: the advent of online social media has simply provided a new forum for social influence.
Have you noticed how some people are extremely good at influencing others? Whether through personal charisma, perceived wisdom, or deep technical expertise, others look to them for advice and opinions. Consequently, these stakeholders have become used to weighing the evidence for themselves; they are not easily influenced by others. I call them Apex Stakeholders because they sit at the top of a branching network of social influence.
If you can identify your apex stakeholders and provide them with the right information, you can gain a lot of leverage across other stakeholders. Find ways to convert neutral apex stakeholders into apex supporters.
Go further: if you discover an apex agonist – an apex stakeholder who is against what you are doing – their influence will be pervasive and potentially lethal. Make it a top priority to win them around. But mind that you do so with great care: they will not be amenable to manipulation or pressure. You need to play a long-game of building a relationship, winning their trust, and then presenting your evidence.
This article was first published on the APM (Association for Project Management) website on 17 July, 2014.
Dr Mike Clayton is the author of The Influence Agenda, published by Palgrave Macmillan – www.theinfluenceagenda.co.uk
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