Stakeholder Management or Stakeholder Relationship

This is a quick discussion about how I don’t like the phrase “stakeholder management” Don’t panic, I’m not saying I don’t like stakeholders or like working with them! I just don’t think that really describes the art of working with your stakeholders. It sounds like they are something you need to control rather than someone you need to collaborate with.

Another thing to remember when you read this, other than I’m not an expert and am certainly not perfect at working with stakeholders, is that I’m writing this from a Business Analyst point of view. I’m also thinking about it from the point of view of a BA that works in a product world. I’m not the only person in the team that works with stakeholders but these are my views so take whatever you want from what I’ve got to say. Hopefully something will be useful.

There are a number of tools you can use to help you “manage” your stakeholders. At the most basic a list of who to talk to about what. Fair enough, it’s a good starting point. What next though? On it’s own that isn’t much of a relationship is it, just being called up to answer questions?

Another tool is the influence grid. You categorise your stakeholders based on their interest in the work and their influence on the work. Where they sit in the grid will determine how you engage with them and what communication style is most appropriate. Once you’ve identified your stakeholders you can map them into this grid based on how much interest they have in your product, are they closely involved or do they have a passing interest as they deal with something in the same sort of domain. And how much influence they have over the development of the product, are they a main source of requirements or not?

Stakeholder Influence Grid

I’m most interested in those stakeholders who live in the top right quadrant of the grid, the ones you should hold close and keep involved. What do I recommend for these stakeholders?

Firstly, talk. Communicate. If talking doesn’t work then talk again. I don’t mean agree to everything or argue about everything. I mean talking things through in order to build a relationship. By talking regularly you’ll get yourselves into a place of mutual respect. Being able to be honest with each other, being able to explain why their solution might not be feasible, or, equally, being able to listen when they say it back to you. This involves having regular catch ups to talk about what is going on in your worlds, rather than just going to them with a specific problem or question. This also means that you get to learn what is going on their world, maybe something is happening that you need to know about or affects a decision you’ll make about something you didn’t even realise was related. It also builds up that relationship, you begin to understand and empathise with each other.

An extension to this is to talk with groups of people if necessary. I remember when I first started as a BA I worked in a team that looked after lots of products. One thing I struggled with was prioritising these different types of work. Due to my inexperience it took someone I was working with to suggest that I get them all together in a room and get them to do the hard work of prioritising their conflicting requests. That’s what I did, we got together regularly and talked about what they needed from my team. I found that as they discussed their issues together they quite easily agreed which pieces of work were higher priority. It helped that they understood each other’s areas, knew each other and respected each other. It would be naive to think this would always be smooth sailing but it definitely helped.

Finally, demo. Demo often. Just quick little demos as the work progresses. Don’t wait until it’s finished or pretty or polished, just do it. This helps build up trust in your work and your processes, along with identifying any potential problems. Big, sprint demo’s are great, especially for bigger groups and for those stakeholders in the other 3 quadrants. But if you’re still building that relationship then demo small things to your main stakeholders as you go along. That will really help them feel involved. If you find it is difficult to get them on an ad-hoc basis then invite them along to your daily stand ups and demo there.

I believe that once you’re doing all these things you’re well on the way past stakeholder management and onto stakeholder relationships.