Take care of your mistakeholders

No, it’s not a typographical error – it’s the latest neologism from the Clutterbuck word factory!

I talk a lot about stakeholders (people and entities affected by what we do) and influencers (people or entities that enable or constrain us in what we do). Mistakeholders are a special subgroup of stakeholders – people, who suffer the negative consequences of our decisions and actions. In any exploration of a team’s stakeholders (or an individual’s or an organization’s), it can be revealing to ask the questions:

  • Who get disadvantaged or harmed, if we do what we are supposed to?
  • Who gets disadvantaged or harmed, if we fail to do what we are supposed to?

Unless we set out to cause harm or disadvantage – for example, in war – the concept of mistakeholders is all about becoming aware of and becoming better at predicting unintended consequences. Every social or technological innovation throughout human history has had unintended and unpredicted consequences, with both positive and negative outcomes. A simple example: the rise of eco-tourism is enabling threatened species, such as gorillas and kimodo dragons to survive, yet at the same time making climate change worse by encouraging more travel to remote places.

 In a team context, achieving collective self-honesty about the actual and potential positive and negative effects of what we do, seems to be a sensible reality check. Conversations with stakeholders about the way the team’s systems interact with and influence theirs can identify where and how they might become mistakeholders – and lead to practical interventions to prevent that happening. It’s basic systems theory: when a system has the capacity to go wrong, feedback loops allow for swift action to dampen down damaging oscillations.

And, if you are someone else’s mistakeholder, consider how you might initiate a similar conversation to both parties’ benefit.

© David Clutterbuck 2023

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