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Strengthening Connections

I recently spent time with a coachee discussing techniques to influence change, particularly in areas where you lack explicit authority. There are numerous strategies you can employ in this area. For today I’ll focus on one key aspect – identifying the key individuals that will help you influence that change and strengthening those relationships.

Identify Your Stakeholders

If we want to influence change, we need to identify our coalition of change agents that can support our cause. Few of us have the luxury of a position or the raw charisma to bring change into existence all by ourselves. So who are our key stakeholders?

We can start with some obvious ones. Our boss is typically on the list. If we lead a team, our direct reports may also be on the list – that’s one place where we have explicit authority. This is likely a small subset of the stakeholders we want to engage. In his book The Next Level, Scott Eblin talks about the importance of also looking left, right, and diagonally.

As a leader, we often forget we are part of two teams. Yes, we lead a team, but we are also part of another team – the one led by our boss. Patrick Lencioni suggests we consider that team our “First Team.”* When we look left and right, we look at our peers, the other members of our first team. These are often some of our most important stakeholders, and unlike our boss and our direct reports, we probably spend less time with them. So as you build your list, consider your peers and which ones are most relevant to the change you want to enable.

Eblin also talks about looking diagonally. This is arguably the most important (and most overlooked) direction in today’s organizational structures. Some of your most important stakeholders are probably in other business areas. Or they are in a peer’s organization. The lead architect on a product closely integrated with your product. The financial analyst who controls your budget. The HR business partner who can help you shift the culture. Your key contact at a partner organization that you work closely with. Your coach (I’m available if you don’t have one). Take a few minutes to brainstorm all the other stakeholders you can think of that may be important for the change you want to bring about.

Assess the Health of Your Relationships

Sample relationship matrix

Once you’ve brainstormed a list of potential stakeholders, the next step is to assess the health of your relationship with each stakeholder so you know where to prioritize your energy. I recommend looking at the relationship through two different lenses. First, how important is this relationship for the change you are bringing about? Assign a rating with five being the most important and one being the least important. Next, how much work do you need to invest in the relationship, with 5 being a lot of work and 1 being no work. Multiply the two scores together to get a relative score for each relationship.** Sort the results by this resulting score, and you have a guide that can help you prioritize where to invest your energy to strengthen your relationships.

Strengthen Your Relationships

There are numerous techniques to strengthen your relationships once you’ve prioritized them. I’ll limit myself to two for today so this post doesn’t get out of hand.

Eblin encourages you to “Connect the Dots” for each stakeholder. If you want them to buy into your case for change, you have to help them understand, “What’s in it for me?” Take the time to reflect on the issue from the other person’s perspective. If we want them to support our proposal, they must understand how supporting you helps them get what they want.

Perhaps you don’t know how to connect the dots for a particular stakeholder. Eblin draws from The Little Big Things by Tom Peters who suggests another simple question – “What do you think?” This powerful question shows that you respect their opinion and care about their perspective. Simply taking the time to ask their opinion, being fully present, and hearing them out can go a long way to building the relationship. People appreciate feeling heard, and as you listen actively, you will learn how to connect the dots.

Speaking of feeling heard, another great strategy is the Japanese concept of Nemawashi, often attributed to Toyota. Here’s how Toyota describes it:

Nemawashi (English: Laying the groundwork or foundation; building consensus): The first step in the decision making process. It is the sharing of information about the decisions that will be made, in order to involve all employees in the process. During Nemawashi, a company seeks the opinion of employees about decisions.

Literally translated as ‘going around the roots’, particularly in the sense of digging around the roots of a tree to prepare it for transplant.

Within the Toyota Production System – and Japanese culture itself – the word has come to mean an informal process of laying the foundation and building a consensus of opinion before making formal changes to any particular process or project.

You may have heard this concept described as “the meeting before the meeting.” If you have a critical proposed change or project, no one wants to be surprised by your proposal in a meeting. Taking the time to meet with each stakeholder in advance, connect the dots for them, and address any of their concerns can help assure a successful meeting once it’s time to gather all the key players in a room for the formal presentation and decision.

Taking It Further

While I focused on the workplace in this blog, I expect you can see how many of these same constructs can apply to any domain of your life. Who are your key relationships in your family? In your neighborhood? Your spiritual community? Your charitable organization? I encourage you to assess the health of all your key connections and see which ones warrant some investment.

Schedule time with Josh.

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* See My Most Memorable Team for more on Lencioni.

** Project Management professionals will notice the similarity to a staple of project management, the risk assessment matrix. You rate the likelihood of a risk occurring, the impact of the risk occurring, and multiple the values together. Then you focus your risk mitigation efforts on the risks with the highest score.