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Stepping into the mind of your stakeholders

By: and :: Published: January 26, 2015

The beginning of a new year is often an opportune and appropriate time to reaffirm an organisation’s direction of travel and the rationale for allocating resources in a certain manner for the coming year. Ultimately, this is a process of aligning stakeholders and bridging differences.

A vivid lesson of how to navigate complex relationships is provided by Christopher Columbus, one of the great explorers. His attempts to persuade the Spanish royal court to fund his voyages to the west highlight how stepping into the minds of those who can influence or be influenced by a certain course of action can progress the achievement of one’s goals.

Columbus faced a prodigious task. The outlay of significant resources was required to travel a route based on a map of the world whose origins were unknown. The route had never been tested because there was no known value, incurring unprecedented risks for any potential investor. How did Christopher Columbus turn the odds in his favour? And how can you learn to better rally your key players to the cause?

Know your stakeholders: When Columbus set out to secure money and support in 1485 he focussed on the Portuguese and Spanish courts, for the simple reason that these countries were devoting their resources to the exploration of the Atlantic at that time. Both were located on the Iberian Peninsula and motivated to establish trade routes to Asia. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella were further motivated to expand following their conquest of Granada, and the threat of their Portuguese rivals establishing a trade route to Asia. This series of events eventually worked in Columbus’ favour.

The first step in rallying key players is therefore to identify those you believe have a stake in the success of your initiative and their desired outcomes. As Columbus did, mapping the storyline of why these stakeholders might support a conceptually incredulous idea helps to clarify and position the importance of the initiative to those involved.

Understand your circle of influence: Columbus understood that the ruling elite would stand most to gain from his discoveries. Marrying the daughter of an impoverished nobleman connected him to wealthy merchants and religious authorities. Even though he was a foreigner to Spanish culture, he had an objective outsider’s view on Spain’s growing power in the world, which further helped him win influence. Following seven years of failed attempts to secure funding for his expedition, he was having dinner with a monk who was previously confessor to Queen Isabella. The monk gave Columbus a letter of introduction and suggested that he should tell the queen of his plans. Even though the queen had been paying Columbus’ salary for six years, she eventually obliged.

The lesson here is that it may help to first pitch your idea to those on the periphery of a particular stakeholder’s circle of influence, but who remain in good standing with them. This can enable you to apply a new lens to develop and test hypotheses of how your critical stakeholders may react to your proposition. By playing out their expected behaviour, you can better anticipate their response and subsequently position the issue in a different way.

Steer a pathway to success: The high probability of failure of the expedition created a stark trust gap between Columbus and the Spanish court. After all, the planned approach was opposite to the one being taken by their Portuguese rivals, who were focussed on a passage to the east via the Horn of Africa. His exorbitant demands, including the ability to pass governorship of every country he discovered to his heirs, did nothing to alleviate this. Regardless, he used his newfound authority within the Spanish court to secure the additional resources he needed. He had a royal decree issued that any convicts who joined him would have their criminal records erased. Even though qualified seafarers refused to join him as a result, the convicts gave him the numbers he needed. More importantly, Columbus was comfortable communicating with both groups effectively, and had solid knowledge and experience that qualified him to manage the venture.

In other words, make use of wins in one area to take your proposition to the next level. By testing stakeholder positions through mental action-reaction-counteraction responses, you will have insights on how they perceive issues. This can facilitate on-going, structured and open dialogue on key areas of difference, which forms the basis for negotiating a path towards the end goal. Moreover, even if that path may be controversial to some, once the risks of their rebuttal do not endanger the achievement of a shared goal, you can push ahead.

The Spanish court may very well have backed Columbus having realised that there was a high chance that he might not return. Despite the risks and criticism, how did he manage to forge ahead? He knew that finding a new trade route to the Orient was top of mind for some of Europe’s leaders. He knew that his novel idea would eventually find favour with the right set of stakeholders. However, it would require him to step into their minds to uncover their motivations, and take small steps over time to build a bridge between his proposed solution and their desires.

Learning from Columbus’ example, rallying key players starts with understanding who they are and their objectives. Immersing yourself in their potential responses to your proposition, and testing assumptions from multiple perspectives, can help you to better prepare for the expected and unexpected.

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