In a recent project the importance of the question: “What is better and for whom?”, and therefore the issue of the success of a piece of work in the eyes of different stakeholders emerged in a somewhat controversial and interesting way. During the contracting phase several stakeholders expressed their views of a preferred outcome: the board members, the HR director, the staff council, and the client herself. They all agreed on the two main points, the second of which was a desired improvement in leadership skills as demonstrated by the client.
At the end of the project all stakeholders agreed that with regard to the first point the desired outcome was reached completely. Regarding point two, the improvement in leadership, the opinions could not be more different: whereas the board members felt that the improvement in leadership skills was not sufficient to keep the client in her present position, the client and the staff council felt that the improvement had gone well beyond their initial hopes. This opinion was supported also by the coachee´s team. It went so far that a previously leaderless team volunteered to be led by the coachee, an initiative that was ultimately granted by the head office.
“What do I learn from this?” I am asking myself, and: “Could I have done anything different to foster agreement also on point two?”. My current answer is: Maybe this was not really possible, or even desirable. Let me explain how:
I remember really struggling to get a detailed description of the leadership behavior the board members desired to see and did not get beyond a really fuzzy description. I actually only got a sense of what they might want in the course of the project by observing their own behavior: they were quite stuck in operative details and routines, keen to display their own expertise, wanting to be involved in decisions well beyond their level, etc. They seemed to expect my coachee to emulate their own behavior, which was not really desirable in anyone else´s opinion (including my own), neither for the team´s benefit nor for the commercial success of the company. So: Was it a good thing that I had failed to capture the boards´s “real” ideas? Could I have done the work had they managed to convey them? Probably not.
For me it raised the question: “What do I do if one stakeholder gives me undesirable goals?”. In my case I went with the goals of the client and the other stakeholders, which were more clearly expressed, seemed to make more sense, and worked out in the end. Generating multiple views of “What is better?” is always beneficial. In some cases it adds depth to the picture of the desired future. In other cases conflicts between different views appear. And in my case it gave me the option to simply go with the picture that seemed most promising and realistic. However, it carries the danger that at the end you cannot really say whether the project has brought an improvement, since the stakeholders´ views on that differ. This is an issue that I find repeatedly in my work in organizations: What is better from someone´s perspective may be neutral or worse from someone else´s. You can rarely be 100% satisfied that you have done the right thing, or achieved anything at all, since depending on whom you ask opinions may differ widely.
A danger and a frustration? Simply a fact of life doing work in the complex web of organizations? Or even an opportunity? I choose to mainly regard it as a fact of life and an opportunity, and to eschew the danger of following unclear outcomes by always aiming for a description of the preferred future that is as detailed as I can make it.
Also, I try to detach myself from the notion of “success” as something that is clear-cut and can always be determined in commercial terms. Maybe I will never get another piece of work from that company because I did not meet their criteria for success. On the other hand I feel that I have done the best I could to do what makes sense for the majority of the stakeholders involved. Whether that will hold true for long is another matter, because things are changing so fast in organizations that you can never be certain of any outcome for any length of time. But at least for that moment of evaluation I can feel that I have done the best for my client and her team.