With deference to the classic Poitier film, one of the main questions Project Managers are challenged to help our clients with is “who should be involved in stakeholder meetings and workshops?”. After nearly 15 years of working with nonprofits and associations both inside and as a consultant, this question can still be vexing for me. The truth is that there are a number of variables to consider.
As usual at Beaconfire, we like to first start with the goals and outcomes. Based on the primary goal of the meeting, it should be easy to pick a profile for the attendees. Let’s explore a few of the possible meeting goals and outcomes.
- To transfer knowledge from the project team to the consultant. If we need to understand client thinking, around which there is some consensus, then the meeting should be the small group, best positioned to convey this information.
- To facilitate a session for brainstorming or idea generation that is strategic, visionary and exploratory. These folks should be creative, outgoing, informed and able to work well with others. Usually includes a broad mix of folks for perspective but no decisions are typically expected.
- To explore and brainstorm desired features or creative directions or technical options with purpose of reaching directional agreement (if not consensus). These subject matter focused meetings make it straightforward to identify those staff, volunteers or constituents that can best speak to the subject matter plus those with enough perspective to provide some boundaries for the discussion. Some decision makers may be present but ideally it is best if they also have subject matter information to bring to the discussion. This usually limits leadership to the direct project sponsor and not other decision makers.
- To educate, inform or otherwise brief a group of stakeholders and decision makers. This meeting is characterized by mostly presentation and summary information with opportunities for clarification and refinement of ideas and concepts that are pretty well formed. The goal here is confirmation, positive reinforcement if not outright approval.
- To provide a forum for stakeholders to be heard, to share their perspective and ultimately to be engaged authentically for the purposes of building ‘buy-in’. In this case, the workshop may be more about appearances and the effort of engaging this audience than the actual information discussed.
Sometimes a stakeholder workshop is defined first by WHO is attending and what the impact of their needs is on how the meeting will be framed and the outcomes expected. If the audience for the workshop is one of the following, see how the meeting’s outcome might be anticipated.
- Consultants / Project Team – Sometimes, the client project team mostly knows what they need to convey to the consultant. This type of meeting will cover specific information with background context, or a pretty firm hypotheses that may need validation and refinement with the consultant experts. It is very likely that this meeting will result in directional agreement if not decisions. These meetings should be very focused, include only those needed for the topic. These meetings can be characterized by “what the consultants need to move the project ahead”.
- Client Project team extended – In other cases, the client team members may need a workshop or meeting to discuss, review and brainstorm ideas and want/need the consultants to facilitate. Surely the consultant will get much of the background and factual information it needs through this facilitation and exploration, but these meetings are less likely have decisions as an outcome. It will be a pleasant surprise if there appears to be directional agreement if not outright consensus as a result of the meeting.
- Internal or external stakeholders outside of project team – More often than not, these stakeholders are engaged for one of a few purposes:
- to be informed and educated about some topic, process, approach or concept, such that they’ve been ‘briefed’
- to give these stakeholders a chance to be engaged for the purposes of getting their ‘buy-in’ to the process, if not the outcome.
- to be engaged in validating concepts, ideas and approaches where there are unique perspectives that they can provide.
- Constituents are whole different set of needs/expectations around which we have numerous engagement techniques and where a “meeting or workshop” is less likely to be the proper medium.
The short-hand I use to understand which type of meeting we need to have is based on these questions:
- What does my consultant team need to know and who can best give us this information? Or who can give us the decision or validation to keep moving forward?
- What does the client team need the meeting to achieve (for themselves or for others)?
In reality most meetings have multiple goals and may involve a cross section of client stakeholders. Ideally however, the meetings can either be separated out to account for the needs of different stakeholder groups. If not, then the meeting agenda requires careful planning and savvy facilitation and a dose of good meeting karma.
Meeting facilitation that achieves a variety of goals with a mix of stakeholders whose needs don’t always align is often the primary reason a firm like Beaconfire is engaged. After all these years, it isn’t quite old hat, but we’ve seen most every combination possible and have tips and tricks for each. But that’s another blog post!