Over the past year, innovation teams in Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Innovation Teams program have shown us that one of the differential impacts of an innovation team is the ability to bring large groups of people together, including city employees that had never been consulted before, non-profit and civil society organizations, legislators, other cities and jurisdictions, community leaders, and end-users—the human beings whose lives they are trying to improve.

Bringing these large and disparate groups together is time consuming and difficult, and when these i-teams convened in Memphis this March, one of the things that they did was discuss with each other their successful strategies for achieving buy-in. The following reflects the key questions innovation teams around the globe should be asking themselves as they try to engage stakeholders, and the insights they have gleaned over the course of their work that arose during that conversation.

Key Questions

  • Who gets the credit?
  • Who bears the responsibility for past and future failures?
  • What other stakeholders can provide you with leverage?
  • What do you want to get through the process?
  • What kind of goodwill can you buy?
  • How do you celebrate successes (for both team and stakeholders)?
  • How do we make sure we can tell our story?
  • If not every stakeholder has experience, how can you coach that?

i-team Insights

Speak the Same Language. Sometimes the only thing preventing a key stakeholder from engaging is a basic communication breakdown. Know what is important to your audience and speak about your ideas in the terminology they use. The language you use to speak to one potential stakeholder may be different than another.

Get Other Stakeholders Involved. You don’t have to be the only advocate for your work. If a key stakeholder seems resistant to you, it might be time to get a respected ally to engage that person or group on your behalf. It can take time to build the credibility needed for universal esteem - don’t be shy about borrowing somebody else’s.

Maintain Connections. Once you’ve hooked a potential ally, make sure you keep them involved and engaged in the work. Innovation teams are focused on finding new solutions to deep-rooted problems; program administration is ultimately the responsibility of the agencies that innovation teams work with. These agencies must own the work, feel that they have been part of the process, and really be involved in developing the solutions they are responsible for implementing. It is imperative to keep them in the loop as the work progresses. Likewise, don’t run the risk of alienating a potential ally and supporter that you will need down the road by bringing them in early and then forgetting about them.

Act as Third Party Convener. There can be a range of actors working to address big urban issues in a particular city, but that doesn’t mean they are working together. A variety of city agencies, as well as private sector partners, advocates and the nonprofit community, residents and users all want to solve problems. The innovation team can make connections between two or more of these players to inform initiatives and build broad support for their implementation.

Show People their Impact and What they Can Accomplish. People get excited when they see that what they do matters. Don’t forget to show people how effective their power and influence really is. Few things can be more inspiring than showing a person that what they do has an impact on real people. Make sure you can connect this impact to a real human being if possible.

Connect and Work with End-Users (aka “people”). The people whose lives you are impacting are a critical constituent when it comes to every stage of the work – understanding the problem, developing solutions, and support for implementation. Do not ignore them.

Take the Heat off of Partners. The “big” problems are often the most controversial and most emotionally charged problems that cities face. Innovation teams can take advantage of their relatively recent introduction to government, and their position sitting outside the normal city agency structure to give others some cover when they need it.

Try Things Out, Test Your Theories. Sometimes people are too tired to engage. In some cities, they’ve turned to discrete test projects to focus and showcase its work quickly to stakeholders. This has the added benefit of allowing space for teams to experiment a bit, choosing what they need to edit and what to amplify before rolling out a larger initiative based on the prototype.

Take Advantage of Your Authority. Be it the power of the Mayor’s tacit endorsement, or a big grant from a foundation, or outcry from the public and the press, it may be necessary to remind people that your work isn’t being driven by one person. Don’t be afraid to let people know that there are forces in this world that are going to hold everyone accountable; you have a responsibility to them, as does your stakeholder.