I was with a multi-stakeholder group this week who have been engaged in a brief struggle over the structure of a very creative and experimental initiative. While these questions were not on the table during the discussion, they have occurred to me in hindsight. I actually wish I had thought of them ahead of time but I didn’t. The conversation is continuing so I am using this entry to sort out some of my own thinking about where to take the group next. Questions that have occurred to me that we really must address: How do we keep the structure from killing the creativity? How do make sure that a baseline of governance is in place? How do we protect the sponsor of the initiative from undo liability? How do we take the stakeholder groups and arrange them so that they have access to the processes that both need their support and wisdom and by which they should be influenced? How do we keep some stakeholders from having too much power?
We also discussed the “suitable” boxes for particular stakeholders and some in the group stated their assumptions about how certain stakeholders would or would not be comfortable in this box or that. As we reviewed one of the models for putting stakeholders into boxes in a diagram, one participant challenged me (and the group, I think) with questions that were “”Well, what about this….? And what about this….?” I responded in problem solving mode: “Well, then we could add this kind of process to mitigate that….” That part didn’t go so well, as it was suggested that I appeared to be advocating for a particular model. I wasn’t, but understand how my responses were viewed. I truly have no investment in the choice at all, beyond wanting it to fit, to work for them.
Upshot of these somewhat uncomfortable moments, I have been thinking about the degree to which one, in fact, can use two key elements in building structure around initiatives. First, the use of mitigating processes to soften the hard edges of power distribution in a structure. If stakeholders are assigned to a particular role, we can and must create processes that convene across boxes so all stakeholders gain a sense of the whole. We have to identify the key elements such as plans or budgets and where in the structure they will (1) gain input from stakeholders; (2) be initiated and managed; (3) be reviewed before passage; and (3) be finally approved. Second, how important the arrangement of stakeholders really is in creating a structure that supports but does not twist or distort an initiative. As we take the key elements and decide how the stakeholders in the structure will support them, we need to pay attention, not just to checks and balances, but proximity of stakeholders. For example, do those that govern and have final authority have sufficient proximity to stakeholders to understand what they are approving? Do our key stakeholder groups, by design of structure or by mitigating process, have enough proximity, literally enough time spent together, to gain understanding of one another’s perspectives, to form relationships of consequence? Have we developed a structure that will enhance the social networking that ends up being the ultimate glue to hold the structure together and the most profound source of both creativity and change?
It would have been very helpful if I had thought this through before the meeting and had had this ready to put on a flip chart for everyone to see, but such, I find, is the nature of this consulting work…one learns as much as one teaches, and thinks of the best stuff more often after the fact than before, more often in response to dialogue than by application of knowledge you already have.