So you want to change the whole system? Well, the only way you’ll succeed is by involving the whole system in that change. This applies to organisations, as much as it applies to sectors. If you fail to involve your stakeholders, you do so at your own peril.

Whether they’re advocates of change or blockers who can make the most powerful organisations feel powerless, your stakeholders have to be involved in the process. Get this involvement right, and change will happen. Get it wrong and change might happen, but it won’t be meaningful.

So how can you help people create a collective understanding of the problem and of the desired future?

Who needs to be there?

In some situations, it’s as straightforward as identifying the stakeholders, and discovering that all of them are conveniently available for a series of face to face workshops. Job done.

More usually, though, there will be a process of exploration and discovery, with new stakeholders identified some way down the line who you realise need to be brought into the process. Some won’t want to come to meetings. Some won’t be able to attend. Others will feel intimidated, anxious or unconvinced. Sounds familiar?

If you’re serious about making change, you have to engage with both the willing and the unwilling. And you have to be prepared to let go of your beautifully crafted solutions, and enter into dialogue with an open (although not an empty) mind.

Let go to let it grow

The art of engaging people to help create transformational change involves listening and letting go. We don’t have all the answers. We don’t even have all the questions. Together, though, we can paint a picture composed of multiple perspectives.

To begin with, we can ask some simple but surprisingly powerful questions:

  • What’s going on here?
  • What do we like about this, and want to keep?
  • What don’t we like, and want to change?
  • What does our ideal, sustainable future look like?
  • What do our differences and similarities tell us about how we need to be, to create that sustainable future?

A shift that happened

We need to listen carefully and attentively to the conversations, so we can hear what’s being said and what’s being left unsaid. The best change agents enable people’s truth to emerge. They help people to focus on the ‘so what’ and ‘what next’, thinking through what the new understanding implies for both immediate actions and long-term plans.

At the end of a workshop, I’ll often ask stakeholders what they’ve learned and what advice they’d give the group. At a workshop where regulators and farmers were talking together about a river which was important to all of them, this enabled a transformational shift. The regulators were interested in long-term changes in farming practices to reduce pollution. The farmers were interested in short-term action to clear debris which in their view had caused devastating flooding. Here are my notes from that workshop:

Facilitator: Tell me one thing you’ve learned today.

Farmer: That people are taking this very seriously.

Regulator: That you have to listen to people’s immediate problems before you can ask them to talk about yours.

Facilitator: What advice would you give?

Farmer: Come and see us, you’re much less frightening face-to-face.

Regulator: Yes. Just like I said, we have to listen first.

We all have to change

We don’t begin these discussions with a blank sheet of paper: everyone has thought about these issues in one way or another. Everyone has an opinion about what others should do differently to solve the problem. Actions and policies may already have been tried, some helpful and some not. The discomfort comes when we realise we must seriously consider what we – what I – will do differently to make change happen.

This discomfort is the stage which sits just before a breakthrough. Living with it for a bit is worth it, because it’s only by experiencing it together that we can seriously set out on the sustainability journey. And by working together to get it right, we can keep the change process moving.

Can I help you?

If you need support thinking through your engagement strategy, or facilitating a complex conversation, get in touch.