Celebrating 10 years and 20 projects of successful outcomes through smart stakeholder engagement in over 10 countries

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This celebration includes a big ‘thank you!’ to all the community members, business executives, local authority officials, development agencies, academic institutions and colleagues for sharing so much over the past decade. Raising the bar and daring to develop joined-up-thinking projects resulted in real value being added to society, while designing out associated risks and addressing sustainability challenges. In so doing, projects gained their social license to operate.

We started our journey in 2006 / 07 when we saw more and more projects being rejected by society, or quite simply failing to produce sustainable outcomes. This was the case even when competent teams of experts ticked many of the right technical, economical, environmental and legislative boxes. We undertook intensive research to see what was happening, why individual stakeholder’s fears or needs were not addressed and what needed to be done to develop projects that society supports.

We call the result Smart Business: an endeavour that is technically and financially successful, environmentally compatible, publicly supported and sufficiently innovative to meet today’s challenges. 

Early on in our journey we engaged with CSR and the ISO 26000 (international standard for social responsibility) creation process, and such tools as GRI. We quickly came up against the enormity of what ‘society’ meant. By 2008 we had replaced ‘society’ with ‘stakeholders’ to make our focus more concrete, more locally meaningful and much more implementable and project-manageable. We re-defined CSR to mean a “Company’s Responsibilities towards its Stakeholders” and became acutely aware of how CSR in its commercial sense was often part of the problem (see the article CSR is Dangerous). Our focus became to help organisations create shared clarity around the stakes of their project proposals, and build great teams and honest and reasonable dialogue with the holders of these stakes. By 2009 we had already undertaken six pilot projects hosted by communities and companies in four different countries (Romania, Macedonia, Turkey and Yemen). Based on the success (and many learning points) of these, we have since developed over 20 projects with stakeholders at the core of their governance and success in over 10 countries. Our approach became central to the 2011 version of the international stakeholder engagement standard AA1000SES, which we helped put together as part of its technical committee.

We learned again and again that we take other people’s decisions at our peril. It became obvious that much of the effort involved in stakeholder engagement needs to go into organisational goal clarity, team cohesion, change management inside the proposing organisation and ultimately co-design. This and a systematic and structured engagement approach proved essential to get to win-win results that sustainably benefited both the local stakeholders and the business itself.

To mark our 10-year anniversary we have documented here the five-step approach we follow called Smart Engagement. It incorporates strategic planning, leadership, team clarity and coaching, change management, sustainability and stakeholder engagement. Project proponents and stakeholders are happy as risks are mitigated and benefits maximised. We further documented here how we use this approach to support the attainment of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Together with my colleague Alan Knight, and with very valuable input from a large number of people, we have also documented the stakeholder engagement component of our approach in the DoShort book Smart Engagement: Why, What, Who & How. We are also partnering with a number of universities and businesses to spread this knowledge and experience.

So what next? Having established a successful approach to managing society and cultural risks for business today, two community-immersed Smart Business development centres and an extensive network elsewhere in Europe and worldwide, we are looking forward to the next decade: one in which we witness Smart Engagement supporting more and more enterprises thrive through developing successful partnerships with empowered communities; and resolving together the tough questions that arise.