When a Client Says “No” to A Good Process

February 12, 2013

Our work is inherently a partnership. Our clients bring extraordinary insights into the parties and issues to be engaged. We draw on experience forged in designing and facilitating hundreds of dialogues to put forward process suggestions. Together we brainstorm approaches that foster powerful discussions and yield solutions that many around the table never thought possible.

But what happens when our clients say “no” to a good process proposal and risk jeopardizing a successful outcome? Are there strategies we can use to help them see the value in and test different approaches? And is there a point where we have an obligation to walk away?

It’s not hard to understand why clients sometimes resist what we think are best practices. Budgets may be tight. Our recommendations may seem unfamiliar or even risky. Some may feel they simply don’t have the time needed to launch a soup-to-nuts effort. There are also instances (not surprisingly) where our clients know much more than we do about the issues at stake and feel (correctly) that they can shortcut certain steps. One client, for example, declined our suggestion to use a neutral as a meeting facilitator, opting instead to rely on senior staff to manage the dialogue in an effort to demonstrate their commitment to the process. The client’s instincts were right on the money, and the move proved pivotal.

Sometimes, though, the agencies and clients we work with get stuck – repeating failed procedures because that’s the way they have always done things. How can we, as their partner, encourage them to try new approaches to collaboration? Below are some practical strategies that have worked for us:

  • Probe to understand resistance. If a client is reluctant to accept process recommendations, our first move should be to understand why. Perhaps they don’t fully understand what we do or how the process can be helpful to them. Or, perhaps, they have insights that have eluded us. By better understanding our clients’ concerns, we will be better positioned to craft a process responsive to their needs.
  • Introduce new ideas in bite-sized and phased chunks. We may be steeped in a host of best practices, but these may be foreign and even threatening to our clients. Two tactics can go a long way towards reducing client uneasiness. First, we have had great success “test-driving” new strategies. When one client balked at a comprehensive stakeholder assessment, for example, we suggested a more streamlined set of interviews, and then used the results to make the case for a broader assessment. Phasing is equally effective (and consistent with best practices). Slowly introducing a client to the steps in a mutual gains process allows them to see the value of our approach without requiring them to make a heavy upfront commitment of resources.
  • Tailor the message, and the messenger. Sometimes neutrals are not in the best position to make the case for an unfamiliar process. For one thing, we benefit if a more elaborate process is used. Also, we may not have sufficient credibility with a new client; or maybe the person we are talking to isn’t high enough up in their organization to commit to something new. In such situations, we’ve looked to other parties or colleagues for help. Stakeholders can be particularly effective advocates for a different process. At a kick-off meeting of a controversial food and nutrition forum, we asked two well-known Washington D.C. advocates, one on the “left” and one on the “right,” to tout consensus building to a skeptical audience. The impact was far greater than what we could have accomplished on our own.
  • Show value from parallel universes. We all, unfortunately, know of projects that have gone awry because clients ran headlong into stakeholder resistance. We work hard to avoid such moments, but – when they do happen – they can serve as teaching moments. A few “failures” – presented carefully to highlight parallels with ongoing efforts – can help clients understand what might happen if best practices are ignored. Post-meeting debriefings offer similar opportunities to take stock, sometimes making it possible to change direction in the middle of a less-than-ideal process.
  • Make a “down payment.” Some clients may value an outcome-oriented summary or a carefully crafted agenda, but not want to set aside the necessary resources to support essential process elements. A small pro-bono investment of time by a neutral can demonstrate the value of a different approach. If this strategy works, a client may be willing to “find” the resources required to underwrite a more robust role for the neutral. I think of this as a “down payment” on a good process.
  • Play “what if” and peek around the corner. Imagine a client who is convinced that a stakeholder group needs only “one more meeting” to reach agreement, while all your instincts tell you that the parties are still miles apart. A thoughtful game of “what if” – where you walk the client through different scenarios indicating how the situation might play out – can help the client “peek around the corner” and see more clearly what is likely to happen if you proceed as they suggest.
  • Benchmark expectations — yours and theirs. Some well-intentioned clients want a good process, but – when push comes to shove – fall back on established ways of doing things. These situations are tough to manage. Clearly articulated benchmarks can help. One quick example: we recently told a major client that we would be unavailable to run a scheduled two-day meeting unless we could kick-off pre-meeting interviews with key participants within 48 hours. By the next morning, we had the contact names we had requested.
  • Encourage the involvement of a strategic colleague or boss. Every organization has staff members with different strengths. Sometimes neutrals need to involve a staff member who is more adept at (or sensitive to) the nuances of alternative process designs. Needless to say, such moves are tricky: we don’t want to alienate clients by going over their heads. But a careful framing – consider, for example, suggesting something like, “It might help to bring a few more people into this discussion given how sensitive the issues are” – can often work.
  • Be the neutral “heavy.” Lots of meetings fall short because of inadequate preparation:  insufficient attention to issue framing, for example, or poorly edited presentations. Our agency partners often find it hard (or even risky) to impose deadlines on their own colleagues. In such situations, neutrals can play the role of “the heavy,” pressing for early submission of material and forcing rehearsals of the more sensitive presentations. This can relieve the client of an awkward task and ensure that the process stays on track.

What if the suggestions above don’t work? What if the client continues to resist? There are times when we have to exit. In rare instances, an abrupt break is warranted; if, for example, we are being asked to manage a process that is a sham. Most of the time, breaks of this sort evolve, as it becomes clear to both the client and to us that our assumptions and commitments are incompatible. In one recent instance, we withdrew from a project because of unresolved differences with a public agency about how to conduct a meaningful public engagement process. It is unfortunate when it happens, but we go our separate ways at the first contractual off-ramp.

The promise and the challenge of our work is to bring new practices – that make sense to us based on our years of experience – to new clients and policy spheres. In most cases, our convenor-partners are eager to test new strategies and brainstorm creative ways forward. There are times, though, when clients are hesitant to try anything new. Our challenge, then, is to understand their reluctance and use the tools listed above to construct a shared platform for moving forward.

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