Have You Considered Stakeholder Comfort?
One of the wonderful things about working as a change practitioner is the regular contact with stakeholders. Most change initiatives involve liaising with a whole range of different people, each having a different perspective on the potential change being discussed. Some will avidly support the initiative, and some are likely to be a little more, well, awkward. Some might actively oppose the change and might do everything they can to stop it.
A lot of very good material has been written about stakeholder analysis and engagement, in this article I want to examine a slightly different angle: that of stakeholder comfort.
How Comfortable Are You?
One phrase that BAs look out for is: “…because we’ve always done it that way”. Perhaps you’ve heard this phrase yourself, it’s typically given when stakeholders are undertaking a task or process in a particular way and don’t necessarily know the underlying reasons why. These tasks and processes are often ripe for improvement; there usually is a reason why the process was designed in a particular way, but it may well link to an old constraint that is no longer relevant. By querying the (now defunct) constraint we can look at simplifying, streamlining, and improving things.
Yet sometimes stakeholders get noticeably concerned or skeptical about such changes. As a change practitioner, this can be hard to understand. After all, if we are making things better for the process operator and the customer, while simultaneously saving money, surely this is a clear win/win situation? Well, yes and no… sadly things are rarely that simple.
One thing that needs to be considered too is whether the change is so radical that it would be vastly uncomfortable for those who are directly impacted by it. Things which seem relatively innocuous on paper (a desk move) can be hugely impactful to those involved (“but now I can’t sit next to the team I’ve been working with for 20 years”). Changes that seem like a “no brainer” to those specifying them (“let’s encourage customers to use the website to order rather than ringing by phone”) might cause genuine discomfort to people undertaking the current work (“does that mean I’ll be made redundant?”) and might even make some customers uncomfortable (“but I like using the phone as I can ask for advice”).
You’d be forgiven for thinking that the best option here is to “manage” the stakeholders, to “formulate communications to educate them” and “get them on board”. That is an option that can sometimes be appropriate. However, another, perhaps more human option is to actively work to understand the specific areas that are causing them discomfort. This is important because:
(a) They are unlikely to be truly ‘on board’ while that discomfort remains
(b) They might know something that completely changes the game (i.e. their objection might be well-founded!)
It seems that the word ‘comfort’, at least in the English language, is less pointed and blame-ridden than other words. Ask “why won’t you support this change?” and it might be assumed that you’re making an accusation. Yet a phrase such as “I sense you’re not 100% comfortable with the proposal, can you elaborate on why this is?” might gain a more productive response.
Getting OK With Discomfort
Now, it’s important to say at this point that some discomfort should be expected with change generally and there won’t always be a clear reason for it. Ever bought a new pair of shoes? Even though you knew they were better than the last pair, they probably rubbed for a while. You might have craved your old pair, and perhaps you even slipped back into them a few times. A similar pattern is to be expected with any kind of change within an organization, it often takes time (and support) for everyone impacted and involved to get on board and get up to speed. This is where regular engagement, listening, and connection with those involved and impacted are so important. Over time, it’s possible to gain a deeper understanding of the discomfort, which will make formulating effective support easier.
In summary: stakeholder analysis and engagement are crucial, and an important aspect of this is understanding how comfortable stakeholders are. Asking this directly can be an effective way of understanding objections and working to resolve them.
What are your thoughts? Do you consider stakeholder comfort levels? I’d love to hear from you, feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn and we can keep the conversation going!