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Can't we all just get along?

Updated: Nov 16, 2019

Houston, we have a problem

There's been some upsets. Stakeholders are not playing nicely together and it's affecting the project


In a recent presentation my research findings went down like a lead balloon.

My stakeholders had invited other team heads into the meeting. In discussing safety concerns surrounding this project I inadvertently set off a flurry of finger pointing. How was I to know there were serious rifts between teams- each vying for control of the project? All this fuss could have been avoided if I was aware of my audience and had tailored my presentation accordingly. Internal politics is not just something you see on The Apprentice. The struggle is real!


I can hear brave designers disagree with me. One should never compromise their findings or sugar-coat the truth, they will say. I agree, but knowing what to say to whom - and when to say it - is a necessary skill if your project is at stake.


The dream

Designers are problem solvers. We think about the people we are designing for. We get into users heads, understand their needs to empathise with them, so we can better solve their specific problems. If we're doing our job correctly, we are solving real problems and making the world a better place with every completed project.


The reality

If only it was that simple. You've been given a project. You've dissected the brief; interviewed the relevant stakeholders; done some competitor analysis; checked the analytics; conducted user research and even done some preliminary lab testing with users. You've pinpointed the key problems to fix and you've formulated a plan of action. You've done all that and now you present your findings to your stakeholders - the people pulling the strings to the bag of money funding your work. That's where it starts to unravel. You've failed to completely convince a room of decision makers to let you do your work your way. The stakeholders don't all agree with you...or to be precise - they don't agree with each other.


The problem

Stakeholders! Am I right? Who are these stakeholders? What makes them tick and why can't they all just get along?


Stakeholder is a loose term applied to anyone that has a vested interest or responsibility or 'stake" in a project. Generally stakeholders refers to project managers and clients - people with decision making power over the project budget and overall direction.


"With great power comes great responsibility" said uncle Ben to Spiderman.


Responsibility is another word for pressure. A manager no longer does the work. He or she is responsible for the people doing the work. If the workers do a bad job, it's the manager's fault. This pressure is doubled with each promotion and step up the corporate ladder. Any mistake or misstep could spell disaster for the manager's reputation, position, not to mention the company profits.


The pressure is not only coming from above (the bosses) and below (the staff) but from all sides - other managers. Managers with their own bosses and staff. Often they are in direct competition with each other. In larger organisations the responsibility of delivering a project is shared by several teams. Teams that each have their own managers and reporting structures and budgets. In really big companies you could see a room full of managers with very similar titles and responsibilities all having a say in the project. Reporting structures at that level get very confusing. No one knows who ultimately has the final say. Therein lies the problem - each stakeholder believes they alone are responsible for the project success or failure. They are in competition with other stakeholders in the room so are keen to have a differing viewpoint in order to stand out from the crowd.


So when designers present their research findings and pitch their plan of action or solution to a room of stakeholders, more often than not, stakeholders are not in unanimous agreement.


The fix

There are no easy fixes. The problem is institutional, organisational, interpersonal and internal. Wherever there are people in competition, disagreements are bound to creep in. So what then, can a designer do? Here are some suggestions:


Earlier I mentioned interviewing stakeholders. The importance of this step cannot not be underestimated. Designers are generally focused on the user. Little energy is spent understanding the people and organisation that give the designer the work. After all, the stakeholder is key to allowing the designer to do the work to solve user problems.


We've all heard of stakeholder management: - how to satisfy the people paying for the work while managing their expectation of the finished product or service.


In order to effectively manage your stakeholders you first have to understand them. Do your homework, your Stakeholder Research. Do a deep dive into the company paying for the work. Research the company history and their staff. Figure out the internal organisational structure. What's the pecking order? How is design seen in that company? Interview the stakeholders of the project you will be working on. What motivates them? What gets them excited? What frustrates them? What are their goals and fears? Get stakeholders to plainly explain what they do in the company and explain the other stakeholder roles. Do the stakeholders have any ideas or thoughts about possible solutions?


Instead of building user personas, focus on building stakeholder profiles and even a company org chart. Form a stakeholder strategy. Once you have your profiles and org chart you can begin noting the stakeholders that support you, those that need more convincing and those that will be more challenging. This could help you formulate your pitch/presentation and choose the right wording and content. Who do you have to dazzle with numbers and who responds positively to qualitative evidence? Who needs further one on one collaboration?


It's a journey

Once you know who you have to impress there are many ways to win over stakeholders to keep them interested and supporting you. Facilitate design workshops and ideations sessions. Run a hackathon or Design Sprint. Get stakeholders to sit in on user testing sessions. Keeping your stakeholders close to your work is a good way to instill a sense of collaboration, engagement and build trust. Yes, sometimes you have to let stakeholders run with their ideas just for them to fail when ideas are put in front of users. I'll cover these techniques in other posts.


It is a lot of work but it could make all the difference in winning the pitch, unblocking indecisive stakeholders, foreseeing and avoiding internal stakeholder squabbles. Designers have to put in the time to really get to know their stakeholders, understand them and spot the first signs of stakeholder trouble to ensure project success...then just maybe we can all just get along to focus on the real work - the end user.

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