Contributor:
Chris Collingridge
January 8th, 2016

Stakeholders rock: Guides, not barriers

At the end of October last year, I attended NUX4, a conference for people involved in working to deliver better experiences (mainly digital ones).

One of the key themes of the day was about how we can achieve better outcomes by working effectively and collaboratively with stakeholders, rather than viewing them as barriers to getting things signed off.

Two of the speakers – Jenny Grinblo and Stavros Garzonis – shared some excellent practical techniques, and I wanted to share with you my three main takeaways.

Focus on one aspect of the conversation at a time

Stavros referenced the Design Council’s Double Diamond, which characterises the design process into four broad steps:

  1. Discovering insights about the situation
  2. Defining the problems to solve
  3. Developing & experimenting with ideas
  4. Delivering solutions.

If you think about the projects and products you’re involved with, you’ll recognise that conversations and meetings can often flit between these steps in quite an uncontrolled way. This limits the ability to explore each of those properly, and for the people involved to contribute as much as they can.  Focus on one of these steps at any one time – and be clear with everyone what that focus is.

Share your processes, and involve others in them

Role specializations and crowded calendars often result in people feeling like they need to deliver answers – in the form of completed conclusions and recommendations. What’s often opaque to people on the receiving end of this is how those conclusions were reached. This has at least two negative effects: 1) people can’t come on the journey with you to those conclusions, and 2) they can’t offer their own insights and experiences along the way.

Explaining to people the process you’ve gone through and – if possible – taking the time to involve them in part of that process contributes to building agreement and understanding, and gives you the opportunity to learn from the expertise of your stakeholders.

Reframe conversations

People are inevitably used to thinking in a certain way – maybe they make decisions all day, or balance financial risks, or plan projects. When they’re stakeholders in your work, it’s likely to be somewhat different from what they are doing the rest of the time – but their perspective will probably remain the same. So if what they have is a hammer, all of your conversations will inevitably be about nails.

To enable them to participate more fully and be more of a partner in your work, try reframing conversations. Examples of things you could do include:

  • Bring different voices (such as users, customers, or employees) into those meetings
  • Take the time to tell the stories that are key to your project or product
  • Use exercises (such as those at http://gamestorming.com/) to free people from their conventional thinking approaches.

By reframing conversations you’ll be able to get the most out of your stakeholders, freeing them from simply fulfilling their usual role.

Guides, not barriers

It’s easy to view stakeholders as a barrier – a group of people who make things difficult and stop you from getting things done. But by focusing the conversations you have with them, involving them in your processes, and reframing and expanding their thinking, you can reap the benefits of their expertise as guides that help move you forward.

Are you doing anything differently? What are your experiences of engaging with stakeholders? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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