Chinese military general Sun Tzu wrote The Art of War nearly 2,500 years ago. But his ideas still hold value on the art of stakeholder engagement. After all he did say: “The greatest victory is that which requires no battle,” which should be the ultimate aim of every stakeholder engagement process.
One of the clearest messages from The Art of War is the supremacy of strategy over tactics and tactics over reaction. Yet project teams spend most of their time reacting to stakeholders with a few tactical activities, such as report distribution and progress meetings. This approach gives the initiative to the stakeholders. And, as we all know, not every stakeholder has the project’s best interests at heart, and those who are supportive rarely have a deep understanding of your project’s real needs.
Sun Tzu states that success is driven by strategy: “All men can see these tactics whereby I conquer, but what none can see is the strategy out of which victory is evolved.” Planning your stakeholder engagement should involve far more than simply deciding who needs what information.
The starting point for a good strategy is good intelligence. “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the results of a hundred battles.” Project practitioners and their teams need to understand who’s important and why; what their attitude to the work is (and why); what you need from them (if anything); and what those people want from you.
After this analysis, key questions for the team include:
- How reliable is our information?
- What changes do we need to create in the stakeholder community?
- Where are the risks and threats within the community?
- How can we make the changes we need?
- How can we minimize any opposition and damage?
Now you’re in a position to develop a pragmatic strategy to proactively engage with your stakeholder community, focusing on those people who matter. But beware: “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” You and your team need to first understand your strategic intent and then develop appropriate tactics to implement the strategy.
You could, for example, produce the standard monthly report containing data on your project’s environmental protection activities. Or, if you know that several senior stakeholders you need as allies are concerned about your organization’s reputation, you could highlight the team’s successful environmental efforts with a photo on the cover. No senior manager ever reads a report (particularly all of the boring data on environmental monitoring in the appendix). But they can’t miss a cover photo — or how you’re helping them achieve one of their organizational objectives. Smart tactics, minimal effort, and now you now have some powerful friends. Similar approaches can be used to minimize the impact of stakeholders opposed to the project if you understand what’s important to them.
Sun Tzu clearly shows that engaging with stakeholders requires more than reactive responses. The good news is a well-thought-out strategy — implemented through nimble and effective tactics — can virtually eliminate the need for reactive responses and crisis management, resulting in an overall saving of effort. “Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.”
Does your stakeholder-management strategy let you “win first” and then deliver an outcome that benefits your stakeholder community? What other stakeholder wisdom have you picked up from Sun Tzu?