Stakeholder Collaboration

Collectively Inventing the Future with “Purpose, Principles & Process”


This article outlines the purpose, principles and process underlying stakeholder participation in planning for future change.  The methodology has been used effectively in both organizational and community development.  The rationale for a participative, self-organized approach is provided as well as the inherent opportunities and challenges within such an endeavor.

2.0    PURPOSE

The purpose underlying stakeholder involvement in future change is best summed up in the following quote from the Canadian Round Tables on the Environment and Economy — “People are demanding more meaningful input to decisions that directly affect them or the places where they live”  (and work).

2.1  Conventional vs. Participative Consultation  Methods. The conventional approach to organizational change and community development initiatives has been to retain external expertise to research, design and implement the analysis process.  Traditionally, the analysis has been conducted in whole by external contractors who utilized various data collection means to solicit the necessary information from key stakeholders (in the case of organizations:  managers, employees, customers, suppliers; within communities:  politicians, bureaucrats, community members).

Once the data was collected, a set of recommendations was developed by the external contractors to be implemented by members of the system. This approach allowed for objective analysis from individuals outside the system being studied.  However, these systems tended to all share a similar outcome — their key stakeholders felt as though change had been imposed upon them rather than developed by them.  Excluding stakeholders from the decision-making process, particularly in the early stages of data collection and planning, created mistrust of the data and lack of ownership of the entire process and its outcomes.

2.2  The Collaboration Workshop Model. In response to these shortcomings and to people’s demand for greater involvement, a continuum of collaboration strategies have emerged.  The approach described herein, the Collaboration Workshop Model, adopts the benefits of the conventional review process (external objectivity and expertise) and incorporates strategies that have proven effective in dealing with its vulnerabilities (mistrust, lack of ownership, resistance to implementation).  The main difference between a conventional approach and the collaboration model is that the latter involves stakeholders in each step of the analysis, planning and implementation processes.

Stakeholder involvement throughout the change process has proven to build ownership and reduce resistance to recommended changes ultimately bringing about a higher quality of analysis and decision-making.  In addition, the amount of time spent reaching agreement on desired changes is significantly shorter than in conventional methods where collaboration is minimal.

The Collaboration Workshop Model is based on the following two assumptions — rapid change has created turbulent environments that are dynamic and less predictable; and individuals living in such turbulence face issues which are no longer understandable or manageable by traditional methods.  In general, organizations and communities are having to search for new, innovative methods and behaviors in order to adapt to rapidly changing needs.  The collaboration process described below allows stakeholders to search out their own distinct direction and to collectively learn about how their system can change.  Through reviewing and redefining their environment and exploring new ways of relating to it, the stakeholders can learn from the past, understand the present and collectively define a future that more adequately represents their commitment to develop a framework for change.

The collaboration workshops are structured over a three- or four-hour time frame to build participation and commitment into whole system learning, visioning and planning processes.  A major strength of the workshop model is its ability to help stakeholders find common ground even where diverse thinking exists.  The workshops accomplish this through the participants collectively exploring their existing environment and building a sense of shared experience from which they strategize.

By establishing a common set of directions in which everyone can find commitment, a sense of community and identity is built.  Participants in the workshops gain a common stake in the expressed competencies and vulnerabilities within their “community,” in the vision of the future and in the recommendations laid out to realize that vision.  When participating members collectively articulate what they value and find a common sense of direction, they readily devote themselves to the harder, more detailed tasks of bringing about the necessary changes.


The principles outlined below present a generic framework that is applicable to any stakeholder collaboration scenario.

  • Participant driven & self-designed — All those who have a stake in the outcomes work together to design for and implement those outcomes.
  • Inclusive — All parties with a significant interest in the issues must be identified and involved to ensure all the issues are disclosed.
  • Safe — Miscommunication, misinterpretation and misbehavior are best managed by establishing operating ground rules that ensure participants are ‘hard’ on the issues and ‘easy’ on themselves.
  • Voluntary — All parties must be supportive of the process and willing to invest the time and energy to make it work.  Willingness to work together and listen to others’ views increases understanding.  Increased understanding fosters mutual trust and openness.  Openness brings forward creative, long-lasting solutions.
  • Consensus — Consensus decision-making does not require unanimity but rather encourages creative and innovative solutions to complex problems by bringing a diversity of knowledge and experience together to resolve issues.
  • Feedback & flexibility — Consensus building involves learning from the perspective of all participants which can alter initial expectations and direction as the parties become more familiar with the issues, process and each other.  Encouragement to trust the process is necessary to help participants feel comfortable with mid-stream alterations.
  • Equal opportunity — All parties require equal access to relevant information in order to participate effectively which necessitates enough time for learning as not everyone starts from the same point with regard to experience, knowledge and resources.
  • Realistic deadlines — Clear and reasonable milestones focus the process, marshal key resources and mark progress towards consensus.  Often the time and resources allocated at the front end of a learning-by-doing process are underestimated.
  • Commitment to implementation & monitoring — Participants must be satisfied that their agreements will be implemented which requires their discussion of how the results will be handled.  In addition, the support and commitment of those responsible for follow-up is critical so they must be involved from the outset.  A post-agreement mechanism needs to be established to monitor implementation and deal with problems that arise.


The Collaboration Workshop Model is comprised of three major components —

  • stakeholders’ pilot workshops involving the members responsible for steering and advising the project;
  • stakeholders’ collaboration workshops; and
  • pre- and post-workshop support including communication activities, technical analysis and input, stakeholder surveys, focus groups and open houses for reaction and input, consolidation of information and production of written reports.

4.1  Specific Phases. The specifics of the process involve returning to the stakeholders on different occasions to analyze “where we are today”, “where we would like to be in (year)” and “how we will get there”.  The figure below provides an example of the collaboration phases as designed by a stakeholder group in the transportation sector.

Figure 4.1.1:  Stakeholder Collaboration in the Transportation Sector


TODAY (2010)

What We Have (Attributes)

What We Value (Issues)

FUTURE (2015)

What We Need To Do (Themes)


How We Get There (Scenarios)

PHASE I:      Outcomes –           Attributes, Themes & Developing Scenarios

PHASE II:    Outcomes –           a) Evaluating & blending scenarios and

b) Developing recommendations and action plans

4.2  A Typical Workshop Design. At each collaboration workshop, participants arrive and are seated randomly at tables of eight.  Each table appoints a facilitator and works collectively on specific tasks designed to achieve that phase’s outcomes.  Each table arrives at a consensus on its priority items and shares this information with all other small groups at the workshop site.  Information sharing between multiple workshop sites occurs through a number of methods — an integration workshop, an open house, a newsletter at the end of each phase of the project.


5.1  Recruitment. Do not underestimate the importance of recruiting stakeholders and the resources required to ensure adequate attendance.  It is difficult to generate enthusiasm for a topic that only interests or directly impacts a small number of people.  Attendance at the collaboration workshops is significantly higher if the process is not operating in a “controversy vacuum” e.g.:  there have been controversial issues to energize reaction.

5.2  Discreet and Dispersed Pockets of Information.  Decision-making on complex matters has been made extremely difficult to accomplish due to the dispersed nature of needed information.  Stakeholder groups often hold quite different information based on what capacity of the organization or community they represent.  Subsequently, adequate discussion time must be allowed to ensure that learning informs decision-making.

5.3  Willingness to Build Agreement. Throughout the three decades I have conducted collaboration workshops, participants have consistently demonstrated a willingness and desire to share ideas, discuss complex issues, invent new scenarios, build consensus and produce plans that can be implemented.

5.4  Lack of an On-going Decision-making Mechanism. Ensure the participants design a decision-making mechanism that allows them to effectively share information and make informed decisions on an on-going basis (throughout the design, development, implementation and evaluation of current and future planning projects).  The absence of a cohesive, integrated process for decision-making has historically resulted in different functions of the system “doing their own thing” with little or no consideration on how their activities will impact others.  Multiply these isolated pockets of activity by 1 or 5 or 20 years and you see disharmony and disintegration.

5.5  Learning-By-Doing. The complexity and diversity of the issues tackled in a collaboration process present a significant learning curve for all parties involved (planners, engineers, public administrators, consultants, committee members, general public, managers, employees and union executives).  The learning process occurs through ‘dialoguing’ and ‘doing’.   Typically, the traditional ‘information dump’ overwhelms, biases and de-energizes the process.

5.6  Relationship Building. A by-product of any collaboration process is “community” building.  Various sectors of the system that have never communicated before will establish productive long-term relationships based on their workshop interactions so be sure to put adversaries at the same table.

Most importantly, plan to have fun!

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