Systems Practitioner 5: Involving Stakeholders


Identifying, mapping and prioritising a project’s stakeholder community are the most important first steps in managing complexity.

Projects and other initiatives can only be considered successful when their key stakeholders acknowledge that they are a success. This requires the effective engagement of at least the key stakeholders to understand and manage their expectations and then deliver the outcome to meet or exceed these ‘managed expectations’.

Unravelling complexity requires information, knowledge, data, opinions and ideas. The stakeholders form the richest source of knowledge, because they are intrinsically involved in finding solutions to a complex issue since they have a ‘stake’ in the outcomes of any decision making and taking action.

Researchers in the field of systems thinking and modelling have acknowledged the importance of involving stakeholders.

Allowing for different perspectives and divergent views is not only important to enrich the knowledge source for finding solutions for the root causes of any problem, but also helps to ensure continued involvement of the stakeholders in the further processes of solving the issues (‘I add value; my knowledge is respected’).

‘Buy-in’ is essential for success in stakeholder engagement. Every party must have a stake in the process and have participating members who have decision-making power. Every party must be committed to the process by ensuring any action they take is based on the decisions made through the engagement.

Involving stakeholders to participate in solving their management problems instead of bringing in outside experts to solve these problems can be described as a ‘participatory’ or ‘bottom-up’ approach.

In participatory systems analysis, the involvement of stakeholders allows the multitude of factors that may influence outcomes or objectives to be identified, whilst systems thinking provides a mechanism through which these stakeholders can interact and discuss their understanding of the management system and the dependent relationships between these factors.


Each of us has a different set of visions, aspirations and views (mental models) of how to deal with the world around us. Our mental models contain information accumulated through our lived experiences. They determine our perception of new information and help us create new knowledge.

All people relate to the world by forming hypotheses about it, ‘testing’ these hypotheses through their everyday behaviour, observing the feedback from these interactions with environments or other people, and revising their hypotheses if necessary to fit the situation.

The ‘hypotheses’ or patterns of thinking are known as ‘constructs’, because they deal with how people ‘construe’ situations; that is how they develop mental models.

Mental models are ‘…deeply ingrained assumptions, generalizations, or even pictures or images that influence how we understand the world and how we take action…’.

Mental models reflect the beliefs, values and assumptions that we personally hold, and they underlie our reasons for doing things the way we do. They are so powerful in affecting what we do because they affect what we see and they shape our perceptions.

Mental models are the filters through which we interpret our experiences, evaluate plans, and choose among possible courses of action. The great systems of philosophy, politics, and literature are, in a sense, mental models.

Unfortunately, we cannot simply look at other people and discern their mental models, any collaboration and consensus of people is a matter of shared experience, coincidence, or the result of honest discussion and understanding.

When people grew up and lived in largely isolated communities, individual mental models among members of the community tended to coincide.

In the 21st century, isolation is rare and diversity, complexity and ambiguity are the norm.

We have all become interconnected in a vast physical and digital web.

Potentially contentious issues, such as healthcare, environmental protection, gender relationships, poverty, mental health, economic development, migration, land use or water allocation (just to name a few), are now tangled and magnified in a global system of ecological, economic, social, cultural and political processes, ideas and dynamic interactions.

In any government, organisation, business or community system there are many individuals with an interest in such systems (stakeholders) and each will have a mental model of the system and its purpose depending on their individual understanding, experience, education and values.

This means that among stakeholders there can be a multitude of views and different implicit and explicit understandings of how the processes of the system they are involved in work and the factors that would affect the purposes of the system.

In managing purposeful systems, it is important to accommodate the different world views of the stakeholders involved so that any proposed management interventions are informed by a breadth of available experience, and are acceptable to those who will need to implement changes or live with the consequences of their implementation.