How to Promote Stakeholder Ownership
One of the first things a project manager does on project initiation is compile a project plan that contains, among other things, an RACI, which is a matrix showing the roles and responsibilities of the different project stakeholders. But there is one responsibility that is never spelled out in any document. This is the responsibility of a stakeholder to take ownership of their own decisions. Everywhere you look there are certain responsibilities that stakeholders must take ownership of, which are mostly social and moral, but for some reason it is deemed acceptable for a stakeholder on a project to neglect their responsibilities toward the success of the outcome.
Now some people will argue that these checks and balances are present during different phases of the project to enforce some sort of ownership — i.e., the approval of a specification, acceptance of a test result, etc. — but all of these are usually at the end of a phase, and as any business analyst can tell you, a lot of water passes under the bridge before this is reached.
So besides the normal approval of requirements, specifications or test plans, what should the stakeholder be taking ownership of? I believe we have all been in a situation where we are responsible for conducting an elicitation workshop and as we know one of the elicitation tasks is preparation. When the facilitator of a meeting or workshop neglects to prepare properly, the outcome is doomed from the start, but this is true for the participants as well. Participants should come to a meeting or workshop fully prepared, but unfortunately not a lot is done to enforce this.
If you have facilitated more than one session, you have most probably heard somebody say “since you are the experts you should be telling us what to do,” and this normally comes from the participant who arrives with only his mobile phone. Although there is some truth in this statement, it is too often used as an easy way out of doing anything or for taking responsibility. The ‘tell us what we don’t know’ is used as plan B whenever the stakeholder has neglected to deliver on plan A, which is to prepare.
Just like making a child eat their vegetables, there are ways to make the stakeholder take responsibility, but as with the former it is never easy and could lead to tears. This is part facilitation skill, part stakeholder management and part psychology. This is the how-to guide to getting your stakeholders to take responsibility.
Start driving home the message well ahead of time. Don’t wait for the last minute but remind participants of their responsibility to come prepared two or more weeks in advance. It is always a good idea to include anything that they should be bringing to the table in the agenda, which by the way should also be distributed early.
Ensure that any presentation material is distributed with instructions on what needs to be done, i.e., homework.
Always try to get as much input from stakeholders before the session. This will allow time to understand what stakeholders are thinking and hopefully provide valuable information on how to steer the session.
Get commitment for stakeholders about attendance and participation.
Make sure the agenda has a clear set of objectives, something that stakeholders can think about but also that is of particular value to them. You want to ensure there is a sense of anticipation, i.e., ‘they are going to be discussing this and I’m not being left out.’
Get to know your stakeholders, that way you can talk to them, ensuring they have a sense of ownership. Throwing a general statement out there has its place, but nothing says ‘you own this’ more than looking somebody in the eyes when addressing an issue.
Actively engage the stakeholders to make some verbal commitments. One of the outcomes of any meeting or workshop is an action list, but getting verbal agreement from a stakeholder in front of his peers always provides an ‘Oh #$#@# now I am responsible’ moment.
Make it about them. We all know that is why we do it, but in many cases stakeholders attend sessions because they were told to, and there is nothing worse than dealing with a stakeholder who did not buy into the idea. If they feel you are there to try to add value to the function (and not just because it is a contract deliverable), you might be surprised how they open up.
But the old adage ‘you cannot satisfy everybody all the time’ remains true. There are times that stakeholders will arrive with the gusto of a sloth on his way to his afternoon sleep and remain like this throughout, but there are always opportunities where you can awaken the beast and as a facilitator this is part of what you should be looking for.
The most important and powerful tool you have to mitigate this type of behaviour is…YOU! When stakeholders say that we [BAs] are the experts and should be guiding them, they are 100% correct. If we cannot do this then we have no place standing in front of the customer. To manage your stakeholder effectively, you need to do so from a position of authority. Contrary to popular belief, availability is NOT a skill and nothing annoys and breaks down trust quicker than a placeholder, so if you see this coming your way, run!
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