The Blog

Stakeholder Mapping: Design and Discovery

Most stakeholder ideas are all about management through power, mitigation, domination, or disruption.

The Goliath Stakeholder Manager 

Giant companies and investors refer to “stakeholder management” to signal that they are taking care to interact with communities, non-profit organizations, or environmental stewards. Indeed, stakeholder management a contrast to the theory that companies are all about managing to shareholders’ expectations. But the tools you find are addressing power in order to protect those in power. The company is trying to mitigate relationship risks with their shareholders. Their words are filled with high level statements, often lacking in specifics.

The David Stakeholder Disruptor

Activists, on the other hand, are trying to change the status quo. Their tools focus on attacking power, and enrolling the engagement of other stakeholders to build a coalition. Some use the language of resistance and revolution to attack. Others get more sophisticated and map power relationships, figuring out who and whom to persuade to change their point of view. It’s management by disruption or influence.

Stakeholder Discovery: A Design for Learning Approach 

But what if you want to design a better way to organize and interact? What if you are developing a social impact venture, or designing a partnership between your company and a not-for-profit and you really want to contribute to the cause without being extractive? What if you are exploring newer forms of cooperative or distributed organizational structures styles you don’t even know who your stakeholders are, yet?

Stakeholder Discovery is a design approach that assumes that value can be created AND destroyed through any human endeavor, and the key to mapping relations is not to exploit, disrupt, or mitigate, but to co-create a world that will work for all of us. 

We map stakeholders to map value, and not just financial transactional give-and-take, but also the function and meaning we get from living in this world and interacting with our projects. 

Power relations are negotiated as we learn through prototypes, models, and scenarios and begin the work of building and making. Agreements and decisions are made as we tell stories about the future from different stakeholder perspectives. We don’t always know what might delight, engage, or enrage key stakeholders. But we assume that the answer is not fixed. 

We know we need to rearrange much of our built environment and social commitments to address complex health, energy, and education challenges.  Stakeholder Discovery is a process of commitment to continue to learn, and reach the elusive third loop of learning:

Single Loop Learning: Are we doing things right?

Double Loop Learning: Are we doing the right things?

Triple Loop Learning: How do we decide what is right?


We can also use this tool to understand why early-stage ventures fail to take flight, or collapse after what seemed like a meteoric rise, or why major public infrastructure projects are cancelled in voter referendums and judicial decisions.

Stakeholder Design differs from a lean startup approach or even design thinking, which tends to put the creator in the role of designing the creation. 

In lean startup, you as the developer or creator of a new venture or project are encouraged to pause for a moment and engage in customer discovery, to figure out, first, what customers need and how you can help solve their problems. You  build something small, then measure and learn, on your way to discovering what customers need (single loop learning), and if you have the capability to deliver value to that customer (double loop learning). This is useful if you know that solving a paying customer’s problems are exactly what you need to do to address systemic challenges. But the problems we face today are often outside of what a customer is willing to pay at a market rate. 

In design thinking is human-centered, the first step is to understanding the needs and motivations of people.  As the design thinker, you move from loop one, dreaming up innovative ideas (doing the right things), to loop two where your innovative prototypes are tested (doing things right). The cycle continues through trial and error until you create a design that resonates with users. But the standard consulting design thinking approach keeps designers and their clients holding the decision.

Stakeholder Design follows participatory design methods:  co-creating directly with the people you are trying to design for, by designing with. 

Center the primary stakeholder

The first step is to choose a primary stakeholder, for the purposes of understanding a system, or re-centering a system to meet unmet but critical needs. 

For example:


  • You are developing an after school program for middle school students to develop career interests. You would focus on the middle school student, first, before the principle, the department of education, the parents, or any funders or partners you might engage. 
  • You are creating a media property to raise awareness about climate technology to attract more engineers to the sector. You would focus on the engineer, first, before the technologists, funders, policy makers, subscribers, or potential sponsors or advertisers. 
  • You are developing a community solar garden. You’ll want to focus on the community member joining your project before focusing on real estate owners, policy makers, regulators, solar installers, investors, or solar panel manufacturers. 
  • You are developing a tech hardware, sensor, and software solution to dynamically price food and reduce waste in supermarkets. You will have to choose – do you start with the IT manager, the store manager, or the planning and merchandizing staff, first? It all depends on your approach and the rate of tech adoption in the sector, so start with the stakeholder you believe you can create the most value for, and go from there.

Acknowledge your role as a stakeholder. 

Let’s take the case of the middle school program. Are you a parent? A tech entrepreneur? A grad student? A former teacher? A retired CEO? What relationships do you have to the school system? How much do you know about the lives of the students, teachers, administrators, or guidance counselors? When was the last time you spoke to a middle-school student? Do you have power over the situation? Do you control resources? What do you intend to contribute? 

Map out your core assumptions about how the system currently works as an exercise to help you see how you see the situation before you begin.


Convene the Stakeholders 


Invite fellow stakeholders to a facilitated discussion to map the history of the space you are in, and to identify common ground and points of divergence. You may have to spend time building relationships in these spaces, first, before you earn the trust, time, and attention of critical stakeholders. It may take more than just a phone call and an invitation for free pizza for people to open up to you (though free pizza can help). Share what you intend to contribute, and how you will engage the key stakeholders and community members in the process of change, design, and development. 

Notice how the view of the world changes after you build trust, invite people to talk about what hasn’t worked in the past, and where the system is falling short. Now you have a better understanding for how to proceed and contribute value to the system.


Co-Design the Contribution

How will you organize formally and informally to contribute value to the system? How will you enroll new resources, supporters, funds, or partners to create and contribute value in new ways? 

The grad student imagining a leadership-centered after school coaching program discovered that students want real world skills to help them get ready for jobs and life. At the same time, while city funds had cut money for after-school programs, the state had redirected funds to apprenticeship training program, starting as young as 14 years of age. The parents and kids found that the new concept – a leadership / apprenticeship after-school program with real world hands-on experience, was substantially more valuable than the standard after-school content that was understaffed and underdelivering. 

The community participants signal that this can’t just be a one-off grad student effort, and so they work collectively on creating a renewable structure.  

The grad student invites other fellow students to apply for a grant to set up the program, and they choose a cooperative structure to be run by rotating students in future years as the program finds its sea legs and matures. Parents and local civic and business leaders are invited to join the cooperative as member-managers, providing administrative support and directly offering leadership apprentice programs.

Co-design becomes shared decision making and community ownership.