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Boaty McBoatface: A lesson in stakeholder engagement

Updated: Mar 16, 2020

Over the last few weeks, the story of Boaty McBoatface has provided us with a timely (and amusing) reminder of three fundamental rules of engagement.

When the UK's Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) asked the public to name its new £200m research ship, Boaty McBoatface was not quite what they had in mind. However, somebody did put it in the hat and when it went to a vote, the name romped it in with a considerable majority. This left the NERC with a stakeholder engagement dilemma. Keep the name “RRS - Boaty McBoatface” and become a potential laughing stock, or go with another name and disengage public stakeholders.

As the amount of change builds within organisations, leaders are increasingly aware of the importance of effective stakeholder engagement. While this particular example has brought a smile to many faces, this kind of dilemma is not uncommon.

So what can we learn from our friend Boaty McBoatface?

Just because it’s popular does not make it right

Business is not a democracy and using votes or going with the popular opinion does not always lead to the right decision. That’s not to say a battering-ram approach is best – quite the contrary. Instead, be crystal clear why a change is collectively going to create value for customers, the organisation and its people – then engage stakeholders and share the vision and the story.

If you ask the question, you must listen to the answer (even if you don’t like what stakeholders have to say)

Sometimes leaders undertake pseudo engagement, in which there is only one-way communication and any feedback is deflected or ignored. True engagement often means accepting you may no longer be completely in control of the outcome and that the best solution may come from an unexpected place. Asking a question and then ignoring the answer is guaranteed to cause disengagement and resentment.

Be clear in advance what’s up for discussion and what’s not

Hindsight is a beautiful thing and I have no doubt the NERC are now kicking themselves, wishing they’d set a few criteria around the type of name they were (and weren’t) willing to paint on the side of their shiny new boat. Always be clear what kind of outcome you are looking for (and conversely, what you’re not looking for) then set your acceptance criteria in advance.

 As I write, there is still no decision whether Boaty McBoatface will ever join his other fleet friends but regardless of what the NERC decide, I can see our little friend 'Boaty' sticking around for some time to come.


About the author:

Kate Christiansen is an author, business leader and passionate change-advocate with twenty years' experience leading major strategic change. Her latest book 'The Thrive Cycle: Unlock The Adaptive Organisation Within' will be released mid-2016.


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