Ask A Negotiation Expert: Simplify Complex Negotiations with Stakeholder Alignment

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In complex, multiparty negotiations, the task of value creation can quickly become overwhelming because of the large number of parties and interests at stake. An emerging process called “stakeholder alignment” can help construct order from chaos, according to Joel Cutcher-Gershenfeld, a professor at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University and the editor of the Negotiation Journal.

Negotiation Briefings: How do you define stakeholder alignment?

Joel Cutcher-Gershenfeld: People often talk about stakeholder management or stakeholder engagement, focusing on the party that’s seeking to “manage” potential deal blockers or “engage” those who are likely to be supportive. By contrast, stakeholder alignment encompasses the entire ecosystem of a complex negotiation, incorporating the perspective of all parties. My colleagues and I define it as the dynamic process by which diverse stakeholders orient and connect in order to advance their separate and shared interests. A continual process rather than a onetime intervention, stakeholder alignment represents the means by which diverse parties can accomplish together what they can’t achieve separately.

NB: What’s one example of an ecosystem where the stakeholder alignment framework has proven useful?

JCG: There are great challenges facing society that can’t be effectively addressed by any one organization or even any one nation. Consider the 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs) articulated by the United Nations, which include ending poverty and hunger; assuring a quality education, gender equality, and reduced inequalities; and action to address climate change. For each SDG, categories of stakeholders include nations, nongovernmental organizations, private corporations, communities, and others. Interests vary not only across stakeholder categories but also within them, such as differences among nations. Progress on these challenges requires new alignments among the stakeholders.

NB: Mapping stakeholders and interests is key to the process of stakeholder alignment. How does it work?

JCG: We begin by conceptualizing an ecosystem as a matrix with stakeholders on one side and their interests on the other. Every stakeholder has a vector of interests, and every interest has a vector of stakeholders, as illustrated in the heat map below. Positive views on a given interest are color coded as green, neutral as yellow, and negative as red:

Some interests are more functional, such as views on different energy options (solar, wind, geothermal, nuclear, coal, etc.). Others concern perspectives and processes, such as how important trust is to stakeholders and how easy it is to achieve. In the matrix above, we can see that each interest has a vertical vector of stakeholders who are more or less aligned on a given interest. Seeing the full ecosystem helps to accelerate progress where interests are aligned and identify potential barriers where they are not.

NB: What’s one real challenge you’re tackling with stakeholder alignment?

JCG: The UN’s climate action SDG is hindered by a lack of open sharing of relevant climate data. Not all data can be open and shared, but more could be. Using the stakeholder mapping method, scholars and practitioners are forming multistakeholder consortia involved in geoscience data publishing, data repositories, physical samples, and related matters—that is, stakeholders possessing data associated with climate change. The core building blocks of stakeholders and interests are enabling the formation of new institutional arrangements to promote data sharing. The fate of the planet is ultimately at stake, and core concepts from negotiation are enabling progress.

NB: How can business negotiators facing complex talks implement stakeholder alignment techniques?

JCG: First, consider if you or your organization is facing business issues that require collaboration. If so, your goal should be to increase alignment to achieve better results. Second, develop a taxonomy of the different types of relevant stakeholders and identify their interests. Third, using surveys, interviews, focus groups, and other means, construct maps of the landscape, indicating points of alignment and misalignment. Fourth, share the results broadly, and convene summits to carve out spaces for people to work together. Fifth, facilitate shared visions of success, and begin the work of increasing alignment to enable action. Periodically track progress with follow-up data collection.

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