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Taking a participatory approach to strategy generates more partnership and power for your stakeholders.

This is the 5th installment in our series on how to build a generative organization.

The shift to optimizing for all stakeholders rather than shareholders alone was a watershed moment for purpose-driven brands. In the last few years, “stakeholder engagement” has been a hot topic in business strategy as organizations try to maximize value and generate buy-in for different stakeholder groups. Yet, this redistribution of value remains to be seen for many organizations. Today, many “stakeholder-driven strategies” often fall short of active inclusion, engagement or participation of stakeholders themselves.

Participatory strategy is shaped by the deliberate inclusion, active participation and deep partnership with different communities – employees, clients, suppliers, customers – impacted by decision making, so that strategies are designed and their value shared by participants themselves. Compared to lighter forms of engagement, a participatory strategy views stakeholders as necessary and empowered participants.

Traditional approaches to brand, experience, and organizational strategy have typically concentrated decision-making at the “top” of an organization and their impacts flow downward. While top-down approaches might seem more efficient in the short term, they sacrifice long-term sustainability without the buy-in and empowerment of broader contributors.

Top-down approaches can also fail to generate value beyond shareholders. Senior executives often operate under incentives narrowly tied to revenue generation, margins, and growth – rather than wider measures of value such as customer satisfaction, employee retention, or sustainability.

Participatory strategy offers an alternative. Taking inspiration from Arnstein’s Ladder of Participation, participatory strategy goes beyond placation and consultation. It generates more value for more people through deliberate representation, co-creation and shared ownership. It’s foundational to create and sustain outcomes that are reflective of the communities and systems brands exist in.

In practice, participatory strategy has three dimensions:

Dimension 01 – Representation

As you shape strategy, ensure participants from up, down, and across the organization are given voice and agency. Intentionally include individuals with different tenure lengths, roles, levels, racial and ethnic backgrounds, and gender in strategy development. Extending participation to suppliers, partners, or customers is a smart move when strategy has wider impact. Taking an intersectional approach to inquiry is something we feel strongly about at co:collective.

Our work with KCAI purposefully convened a diverse group of students, faculty, staff, alumni, community members and board members to co-create a new strategic plan for the institute together. Those we engaged through the work ultimately served as the voice of the vision and plan for the KCAI community, so that the end result was authentically built from within.

Dimension 02 – Co-creation

As you begin developing strategy, work alongside a wide array of participants to ensure early buy-in and final outcomes that reflect their needs and inputs. This can take the form of input sessions, workshops, or prototyping as you crystallize thinking with participants.

Our work with an innovative health care client involved deep collaboration and play with participants as we created a new tone of voice and visual identity for their brand. At the foundation of this work were interviews with diverse participants from health equity experts, brand detractors, and geneticists to land at the right territory for their new brand purpose.

Dimension 03 – Shared ownership

Transferring ownership and power to participants is what sets participatory strategy apart from traditional stakeholder engagement. Participants are activated and empowered as owners through inclusive implementation and governance mechanisms such as advisory boards, change management teams, and brand councils.

Our work with Good360 empowered a team of leaders and subject matter experts across all levels to define the strategies and initiatives that will expand their reach and impact. As they begin actioning on this strategy, this team will own the implementation and drive its adoption across the organization.

At co:collective, we purposely opt for “participants” instead of “stakeholders” when we think about the systems our clients exist in. We believe that participants from bottom to the top, from the inner circle to the peripheral should play a powerful role in the shaping and doing of strategy. To generate sustained value for more people, more people should be involved in the process.


By Sarah Fischer

Senior Strategist, Business & Brand

Sarah is a strategist at co:collective where she works with the Brand & Business practice to empower clients as they talk the talk and walk the walk. She has worked as a consultant to Fortune 500 companies, nonprofits, and foundations advising them on sustainability and social impact strategy, storytelling, and partnerships.