7 Ways to Keep Stakeholders Close in a Virtual World

Maybe it’s a complete system replacement, a complicated reporting structure or a new business process. Whatever the change your organization is rolling out, dozens  (if not thousands) of lives may be upended. You know that to make sure everything goes smoothly, you must reach out to those most affected by the change. Trouble is, most of the people who can help make this project a stunning success (or an abject failure) work far away.

I am joined in writing this month’s Communiqué by Kupe Kupersmith. Kupe and I met recently to brainstorm what’s so different about engaging stakeholders when most work in other locations and oftentimes, in other time zones. Our conclusion: Even though our intentions may be similar when working face-to-face and virtually, how we go about initiating and cultivating stakeholder relationships can be very different. Here are a few tips we came up with for engaging stakeholders virtually, for projects that really matter. (See also: Sample Stakeholder Analysis Matrix by Guided Insights and How to Improve Stakeholder Engagement, a tip sheet from b2ttraining.com.)

  • Open yourself to new possibilities. Avoid being one of those people who throw up their hands and insist that building “real relationships” just can’t be done in the virtual world. (Example: “I can never have the equivalent of a cup of coffee in the cafe with someone I’ll never even meet!”) Well, actually, you probably can. Try scheduling coffee meetings with each key stakeholder at a regular time and day each week. Invite them to join you with a favorite morning beverage for a casual check-in to give you a chance to say hello and touch base, much as you would if you ran into each other in the cafeteria. Ask them how their weekend went. Find out what’s on their mind. Share what’s ahead for you and the project this week. Be on the alert to find small ways to make that human connection.
  • Give stakeholders the information they need. First, you have to ask them what’s important. Take the time to discover what kind of project information they need, and at what point. For example, a marketing VP may want to know how a new social platform can provide better customer data, but may not be interested in the algorithms used for data analysis. A programmer may be interested in understanding the goals of a system, but less interested in knowing the details of end-user training. Find out what concerns each stakeholder is likely to have and what information they need to make well-informed decisions on behalf of their organization. This might best be done in 1:1 phone conversations, in small virtual meetings, or in an online conference area, where all can post and share responses. Build your project communication plan around the information needs and preferences of your stakeholders, rather than the other way around.
  • Factor in time zone differences, holidays, vacation schedules and organizational calendars. This applies to the timing of your meetings with your far-flung stakeholders, as well as the proposed timing of the changes you’ll be rolling out. For example, you probably don’t want to pilot a new financial system in China anytime around the Lunar New Year, or a new global sales reporting system near the year-end close. Similarly, rolling out a major new application in Europe ought not to be tried in July or August, and nor do you want to begin your weekly team meetings that require several stakeholders to arise in the middle of the night. Remain aware and respectful of the differences, and find ways to accommodate them. This may mean holding two calls for different time zones or organizations, which can be a small price to pay if it means making important stakeholders feel like their opinions and concerns really matter. At a minimum, share the burden of having meetings super early or annoyingly late. One meeting may require the folks from India to get up early, and the next week the U.S. team will be the ones waking up to make coffee at 4 AM.
  • Make their presence felt. Consider how different communication methods and tools can help replace the loss of visual cues and nuances that can impart so much vital information in face-to-face settings. Video can be particularly helpful, especially during 1:1 meetings, where eye contact and body language can be crucial to impart or derive meaning. In addition, web meeting tools that allow people to raise hands, show emoticons, chat comments or ask questions can make it easier for people to communicate more openly. Once you discover the communication styles and preferences of each stakeholder, design your interactions accordingly.
  • Make it personal. Let’s face it: Lasting relationships are not usually built simply by discussing business requirements week after week. To build trust and deepen relationships with your stakeholders, find ways for people to connect across more personal dimensions. Create a shared place where people can post photos of themselves or of people or objects that have special meaning to them. Ask people to join calls a few minutes early for a social check-in. Set up an asynchronous online conference area where team members can share interests, special skills, communication preferences, languages spoken, and other information that can create common bonds.
  • Encourage small-group meetings for deeper discussions. Stakeholders may be reluctant to admit having questions, concerns or issues in a large group meeting. Problem-solving discussions can go far deeper in small groups. These more intimate conversations have a way of building trust at a faster rate than larger group calls. For example, consider assigning a few small teams to different stakeholder segments, allowing them to probe more deeply to answer questions such as: How will these people be affected? What do they need to know in advance? Who do they see as their most credible sources of communication? What aspects of this project will please (or displease) them? Ask teams to post their results in a common area and be prepared to discuss “aha’s” at the next team meeting.
  • Embrace multi-channel conversations. If you suspect that important stakeholders are holding back during a call, send a private chat that invites their participation. You may want to offer to bring up a question or concern on their behalf, either anonymously or not. If you think that some people may not have understood a key point, IM a trusted colleague to ask whether a quick paraphrase is in order. In face-to-face meetings, we have just one communication channel. In a virtual world, you need to become comfortable using multiple communication channels to achieve great results.

We want to believe that all of our projects are going to go really well. But the reality is that no project is perfect, and things won’t always go smoothly. Stakeholder relationships can be difficult to cultivate and easy to damage, especially when we are deprived of the opportunity for face-to-face interactions. In a virtual world, course corrections take considerably longer, and damaged relationships are a lot harder and more costly to repair. Think of meaningful stakeholder engagement as an insurance policy that we invest in when things don’t always go according to plan. Yes, it takes thoughtful planning and careful choreography, but the paybacks can be enormous. In the virtual work environment some tend to think they can’t “bother” someone unless it is work-related. Remove that belief from your thoughts and connect with your stakeholders, regardless of where they are.

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