Developing Solutions for a Complex World: The “Stakeholder-Involved” Process

The Concept:

Imagine the scenario: it’s April 1970 and the Apollo 13 spacecraft has recently been launched on its mission to explore the surface of the moon. Suddenly – an explosion on the spacecraft occurs! The famous words are uttered: “Houston, we've had a problem.” It is something for which no is prepared, no one is trained, something completely unexpected. Seeing what must be done, the mission control management team quickly springs into action. Management announces that it will solve the problem and immediately sequesters itself in a distant board room. The rest of the mission control team is told not to worry, to go about its work, and that management will deliver the “solution” soon. When questioned as to why the rest of the team isn’t involved in the solution, management mumbles something about “Sarbanes-Oxley” and runs back to the “war room.” All communication with the team is then severed to ensure that nothing leaks out until the perfect solution is ready. Hmmm…

Of course, in reality, the mission control operations team worked out a solution together, rather than having it delivered to them by the management team. Unfortunately, too often businesses today respond to crises and risky situations by adopting a “bunker mentality” and consolidating the responsibility for developing solutions to a few select leaders. You might ask: “what’s wrong with that? Isn’t the role of the leader to come up with solutions to the problems facing the business?

Actually, one of the problems that we frequently witness in businesses today is the consolidation of decision-making at senior levels and the lack of participation of “stakeholders” in the management of processes. Studies show that organizations that involve employees and key stakeholders in the decision-making process are greater than 30% more productive than those that make key decisions in a more centralized manner.

We believe that there are three primary reasons that the company that taps in to its stakeholders to make key decisions is more productive, including:

1. Complexity Reduction:

With the complexity of modern businesses, processes, and systems, it is nearly impossible for a leader to understand all aspects of a problem. By utilizing employees and other stakeholders in the management of processes, leaders reduce the likelihood of key issues being overlooked.

2. Creativity Enhancement:

Think of all the business and life experiences embodied in the employees of a business. By allowing these employees to use their individual creativity to try solving problems, you will likely generate solutions that would never have been uncovered if only the management team had been involved.

3. Perspective Broadening:

Those outside the intimate daily working of the process have different, unique views of the problem at hand. By harnessing the perspective of these stakeholders in fashioning a solution, the leader better ensures that the “fix” doesn’t cause more problems than it solves.

We recommend that businesses implement a “stakeholder involved” process – one in which information is shared, in which stakeholders help develop solutions to problems, and one in which process leaders are focused on fostering this collaborative environment. It is a very different model than what you most likely see today – one in which the creativity of employees is encouraged, not frowned-upon. One in which the primary role of the leader is to help employees and stakeholders understand problems and the critical business imperatives. The rewards are significant: higher quality solutions to problems, greater sense of “team” for employees and other stakeholders, improved morale as people see their ideas adding value to the company.

Applications for the Executive:

How do you create a stakeholder-involved process? Among the steps we recommend are the following:

  1. Tap into stakeholder creativity

This sounds simple and logical enough, but it can be more difficult than you might expect. If your stakeholders’ primary experience has been one of “us vs. them,” they are going to be highly suspicious of the new, more involved model. Start by opening your “operational review” meetings to outside participants. Encourage their attendance and participation in the meetings. Share data on process performance – both the good and the bad – and ask for help in determining solutions. If you form a team to solve business issues, make sure to involve employees, upstream and downstream stakeholders, and possibly even vendors. By adding different perspectives, experiences, and thought-processes to your problem-solving toolkit, you will increase both the quantity and quality of possible solutions.

  1. Don’t institutionalize localized solutions

Often, the first reaction to coming up with a great, creative solution to a problem is to take that solution and replicate it throughout the business. This idea is so great that every division, every office, everywhere should do the same thing! Unfortunately, the creative energy of your employees that you tapped to develop the solution gets stifled in the receiving organization where the solution gets “drop-shipped.” This method also assumes that all organizations have the exact same problems and surrounding circumstances, when in fact, each is unique. Use the solution as a “best practice” model and make sure everyone knows about it, but allow other organizations to develop their own “customized” solutions tailored to their specific problems.

  1. Choose process leadership wisely

Don’t fool yourself – changing your management style from one where senior leaders make most key decisions to one where everyone is involved is a major change. Not everyone can accommodate that change easily. The fastest way to derail the implementation of a stakeholder-involved process is to have managers who won’t share information, who hide behind service-level agreements, who grab the reins when faced with a risky situation. If you have these types in your organization, we recommend that you take the following steps. First, make sure they understand what you are trying to implement and how they are expected to behave in the new environment. Second, monitor their behavior and their reactions to business problems closely. If they are unwilling or unable to involve the creativity of other in the problem-solving process, it may be time to re-assess your management team.


It is a new world out there. One where problems are too complex, situations are evolving too quickly, and competition is too fierce to allow isolationist management to run your key processes. Open the lines of communication, tap in to the collective creativity of your employees and other stakeholders and listen, and you will be amazed at the myriad of ideas and solutions that you might never have considered.



About the Author:

Kevin Smith is a co-founder and managing partner at NextWave Performance LLC.

©2007 NextWave Performance LLC