Awkward Stakeholders Or Lack Of Engagement?
It’s no secret that people are key to implementing successful change. Projects don’t happen in a vacuum, and there will usually be a wide range of stakeholder perspectives that need to be considered, and a broad range of people who need to be ‘on board’ with the change. It’s unsurprising then that BAs and PMs spend a fair amount of time working with stakeholders, and with a wide range of stakeholders involved there can be conflict. This conflict can manifest itself in all sorts of ways, in some cases an individual might choose to do everything they can to block a project and be as awkward as they possibly can. Another stakeholder might say they support the project in public, but then do everything they can to thwart it in private (while also rejecting every meeting request so that progress stalls).
When situations like this occur, it’s very easy to sink your head into your hands and shout ‘Those awkward stakeholders! Why won’t they just get with the program!’. It can be particularly frustrating when an individual has had (seemingly) hundreds of opportunities to raise a concern, yet the time they decide to raise it is twenty minutes before go-live on a Sunday afternoon where everyone is already under extreme pressure. As frustrating as these situations are, and as tempting as it is to blame the stakeholders themselves, it is usually more valuable to take a step back and say ‘how did we get to this situation?’
Assume The Best Of Intentions: They’re Not Trying To Screw-Up Your Day!
In most organizations, it’s fair to assume that the vast majority of people want to do a good job. Hopefully very few people come to work to actively sabotage the company, and those that do will (hopefully) get weeded out through the company’s HR and monitoring processes. Some stakeholders, particularly those outside of the organization, might have agendas and objectives that differ from those of the organization, but they will have objectives that make complete logical sense to them. A school might focus on ensuring the best possible outcome for an entire cohort of students; an individual parent is likely to care more about the outcome of their child. Both perspectives are logical and understandable, but could occasionally lead to conflict where the needs of the individual child are opposed to the wider cohort (“My child is so far ahead, why can’t you go quicker!”).
As hard as it is to do when the pressure is mounting, it’s usually best to assume that our stakeholders are acting with good intentions unless we can categorically prove otherwise. That compliance manager who decides to butt in with a new regulation 5 minutes before go-live probably isn’t doing it for kicks, they are probably doing it because they’ve only just ‘joined the dots’ and have seen how relevant it is. For every business analyst that says “That stakeholder is really awkward, they always raise objections too late…” there is probably a stakeholder saying “That BA is really awkward, they bombard me with useless information, and then when I do raise a concern they complain!”.
This comes back to the crucial discipline of stakeholder engagement. If we don’t engage and communicate with stakeholders in a way that works for us and for them, we’ll likely end up talking cross-purposes with assumptions (or misunderstandings) on both sides.
Helping People ‘Connect The Dots’
As much as stakeholder engagement is important (and it really is important), an aspect that is sometimes overlooked is why it is done. Is it really done just to elicit information and ‘get people on board’? If so, isn’t that a little one sided? Surely it’s important to consider what’s in it for the project, the organization and the stakeholder (or group) themselves? Otherwise it’s not two-way engagement at all, it’s just a self-serving and time-sapping project monologue, something that I’m sure we’re all keen to avoid!
One aspect to this that often isn’t talked about enough is the way that good quality engagement and communication helps people ‘connect the dots’. For example speaking with a wide range of stakeholders will help the project team understand different perspectives, how different parts of a process work and so on. Equally this helps the stakeholders themselves connect the dots and figure out how the change will affect them and how they can contribute to its creation. By truly listening and empathizing we can proactively help others to make these connections, while also making them ourselves. By actively listening and asking probing questions we can preempt where later conflict might emerge. By getting concerns and issues on the table early, we can ensure they are discussed and escalated and that the person is genuinely heard.
Traditional stakeholder identification and categorization approaches such as the stakeholder interest/impact grid, stakeholder rainbow, stakeholder onion and others are helpful (to an extent) in helping us figure out who we need to engage, when and how often. Yet how we engage and the content of our communication is harder. Actively asking questions such as “how can I help join the dots… for me and them?” and “What’s in it for them?” can help frame the conversation.
And perhaps, just perhaps, ‘connecting the dots’ is a key part of the BA role that we do by default and need to talk about more….
What are your views? Do you ‘connect the dots’? I’d love to hear your experiences. Please feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn and keep the conversation going!