Too Many Stakeholders and Too Many Ideas

There are many complex contexts that involve a wide range of stakeholders with a broad array of ideas for improving the context of interest.  Such contexts can range from neighborhoods to wards to cities to states and countries.  I am involved in one right now with 200+ ideas; a few years ago, I played a central role in a context with 1,000+ ideas.

Typically, each idea is linked to one or more committed stakeholders who anxiously hope their idea will be chosen for investment.  Yet, the overall organization can only seriously commit to and execute perhaps five ideas.  How does one winnow a set of hundreds or perhaps thousands of proposed initiatives to five?

The first step is to cluster similar ideas.  This often reduces the number of alternatives by a factor of ten or so.  It is important to communicate to stakeholders that they are now co-owners of a cluster.  This provides important feedback that their suggestion had an impact.  It also provides them a venue, albeit much smaller, for advocacy of their idea.

So, now we have perhaps 20-30 clusters.  How do we get to five?  Now we need to consider attributes of clusters – potential impacts and costs of the pursuit, as well as likelihoods of success.  This can lead to surprises.  For example, planting trees at the corner of 5th and Green Streets scores well versus providing after school tutors for all pre-school students, which would be very expensive and raise school taxes.

This suggests a portfolio approach.  Perhaps the portfolio can include three low cost, low risk obvious winners; one moderate cost, moderate risk initiative that may benefit many; and one high cost, high risk aggressive initiative that may benefit everybody.  This yields a 60% chance of winning results, perhaps a 70% chance of better than that and an 80% chance of a home run.

The key is to get all the key stakeholders to understand the portfolio.  Moderate success is almost guaranteed.  Greater success is likely.  Total success is a stretch, but most of the investment portfolio is a likely winner.  The overall idea is to transform hundreds and perhaps thousands of ideas into successes such that key stakeholders are fully aware that they influenced and can take pride in this achievement.

Beyond the mechanics of the decision process outlined above, the absolute key ingredient is stakeholder involvement in the process.  People need to feel that they influenced the formulation of the clusters and had opportunities to advocate for their preferences.  Their favored options may not have made the cut, but they should feel that the results were arrived at openly and fairly.

So, what happened in the situation with 1,000+ ideas?  Nothing at all!  The leader was unwilling to antagonize anyone by not supporting their idea, so none of the ideas were supported.  The spreadsheet with 1,000+ ideas was archived.  A plan was developed that was so general that it could possibly include any of the 1,000+ ideas and possibly any other ideas.  In fact, the plan was sufficiently general that it could be readily adopted by any other institution.  This plan was not a source of competitive advantage.

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