A Systems Thinking Approach to Managing Stakeholders

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Previously I wrote a post on the use of Appreciative Inquiry and the role of coaching in managing individual stakeholders in an organisation. This is effective on a individual level, but as organisations grow the communication points increase and become highly complex

Often you need a way to view the entire landscape of stakeholders in order to develop a strategy for implementing design efforts. I have found that viewing organisations as systems can help identify the key stakeholders, their relationships, and help develop a strategy to implement design from an organisational perspective.

I have recently started using a set of stakeholder maps to model these relationships. These maps can guide our conversations in order to build trust and strengthen relationships. One of the key elements of systems thinking is that the complexity of can seldom be ‘fixed’, but only influenced or changed by providing leverage at certain points.

“You can’t “fix” problems with systems thinking, instead there are situations you could improve” - Peter Checkland

In the mid 1980’s Peter Checkland developed a model that divided systems into two groups - Hard and Soft. Hard systems are mechanical systems such as a thermostats or the motherboard of a computer - fairly easy to understand and predict. Soft systems are those that involve humans - a game of poker, a meeting, healthcare systems, etc. He developed the Soft System Model suggesting that most problems in systems are caused because ‘humans are hard to predict’.

In Checklands model, a problem situation is analysed with identified persons (stakeholders) and factors that influence this problem. This situation is graphically represented in a ‘Rich Picture’ which identifies the following elements:


Organisational Actors - people who work in the context of the problem situation

World views - what mental models, beliefs, and values does each stakeholder have.

Connections - what relationships exist between the actors?

Conflicts - where do the conflicts exist within the system?


 Peter Checkland’s ‘Rich Picture’

Peter Checkland’s ‘Rich Picture’

It is important to point out that this ‘Rich Picture’ was not meant only as a documentation of the problem.  It is also used as a facilitative tool to guide discussions with others to get their perspective which leads to a more robust view of the issue. In the real world, these discussions often lead you to update your stakeholder map to reflect the perspective of others - in fact this is a core part of Checkland’s theory.

A number of years ago I participated in the Coaching Beyond the Team workshop from Esther Derby and Don Gray (highly recommended), where they presented a Stakeholder Mapping exercise. I have used it successfully at a few engagements since then and found it quite effective. After reading Checklands book Soft Systems Methodology in Action I have merged some of the elements of Checkland’s together with their Stakeholder Map to form something that has proven really effective when working with design managers.

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Once the stakeholders are mapped with the relationships, connections and conflicts, one can begin to evaluate the situation, noting the persons with the most interest and influence. The grid helps visualise the situation. Based on where each stakeholder lies they can then be labeled on the Stakeholder Map for an overview of the situation.

Lastly, it is important to point out that like many system models this is a ‘snapshot in time’ and the map will change overtime. This will shift as the organisation shifts, and needs be updated with some frequency to observe the behaviour over a longer period of time.

Happy mapping!