When recently asked to describe what I do for living, I came up with the phrase “herding cats” instead of a well-worn delivery about research, design and business etc., etc. In a sense, this shorter response (if you know cats) described what is involved in managing stakeholders, a large part of any creative role. In a UX context, you could describe it as the user experience of running user experience projects.
As brought up by the group, a good chunk of managing stakeholders revolves around bringing trust on board to build alliances and consensus, to have awareness of KPIs (not forgetting your own) and effective messaging. The common theme would be communication, with an underlying point that UX ability alone does not ensure successful outcomes.
Three broad considerations of what can be done came out of the discussion.
1. Take the initiative
The first step for smooth running projects and relationships is to take the initiative in making it happen. Ideally your counterparts will be thinking the same but they may not know how, or expect you to take the lead (a fair expectation if they are your client).
People cannot consider options they are not aware of and naturally most gravitate towards the comfort of familiarity. However, if stakeholders come to you because familiarity is not working, giving them exactly what they ask for may just land them back where they started (but this time its your problem!). Progress demands change and for stakeholders to hear you out when facing something new, you need their confidence, or at least their attention to begin with. Without anything yet on the table, stakeholders have to buy into you first. Credibility then comes from being able help frame the problem and define clear goals, working around requirements and limitations, and not just around a set of tools.
An example of getting attention could be…
Referencing credible examples of clients and practitioners relevant to your stakeholders can allay concerns of the unfamiliar (i.e., its been done before). For example, for work in consumer perception and behavior, references can include…
2. Make time to drink tea
Diving straight into the nuts and bolts of a project may simply paint everyone into a corner, with set expectations then being hard to change. With stakeholders in a hurry, hitting “pause” can help clear the air with good measure of problem framing and alignment before formal proposals. An overarching goal should be to have an environment conducive for stakeholders to better know one another as they work out what to do. Environment in this context is about how you build and run your business. It is more culture and approach, less process and tools. Environments do not come flat packed from IKEA, but if you make time to build yours, stakeholders will be comfortable enough to consider something new.
Sitting comfortably ‘Ms. Cleo’ (above) former Singapore street cat and now unwitting global citizen considers her 2014 move to Hong Kong. Next stop New York late 2015.
Example of an environment…
Titoma, a Taiwan based design to manufacture start up I helped build in mid-2000 included a standalone tooling and parts service. Easier tooling revenue relieved pressure for quicker returns from the harder core design led business before it established. A model of recurring revenue from product sales meant meeting consumer needs and having client confidence were cornerstones for success. UX in this context was the time and space in helping mid-size clients build their brand, products and service.
3. Prepare for conflicting requirements and trade offs
A good question from the group was how to deliver a product that satisfies the consumer while balancing project conflicts and trade-offs?
The best made plans can change overnight so stakeholders need to be able and willing to adapt. A key enabler is starting with a trusted brief plus broad buy-in before a project is “go.” Getting buy-in needs rapport along stakeholder networks and lines of reporting, usually with more than one leader needed to endorsement and support a project. Neither is influence exclusive to rank and authority, innocuous people including ones you may not meet can impact what happens, or if it happens at all. Of ten conversations on a project you may only be present at two or three.
Clear messaging must not get lost in delivery or translation. As UXer, you won’t get far if you are your only advocate. If you first align stakeholders on overall goals and help them carry the conversation, then working out the details on how to realise goals will be easier. Context is King so central to building common goals is clear understanding of the target consumer’s perspective to help stakeholders balance requirements and deliver something the consumer will want and use.
IS THERE A TEMPLATE?
Fortunately not. The above broad considerations are only three among many, not all may apply in your case. As noted by the group, project situations will be fluid so you need think in terms of an approach, not an SOP. It is a case of learning by doing but if I were to make a cheat sheet from the discussion, it might be this.
- Listen first. You have two ears and one mouth for a reason.
- Think broadly about what people are telling you. Is what they want the same thing as what they need?
- Make time for tea. Good rapport comes with those interested to work with you as person, not just what you can do for them.
- Use plain language.
- Be clear on what value you are adding.
- Finding champions you can talk frankly with is invaluable.
- Have situational awareness. Will what has happened is happening or may happen economically, politically, socially…. affect your stakeholders?
- Know priorities and how to execute them.
- Prototype for clarity and impact.
- Clarify successes. With R&D you will not know what results will be like at the start.
- Be prepared to start again. There can be very good reasons but have this conversation early!
The above is a snapshot of stakeholder management. The task may not be everyone’s favorite thing but everyone needs a basic ability to be effective in UX or similar roles. As with most things, preparation and breaking big tasks into smaller ones can get you a long way. I view it as part of the job, mostly enjoyable and always interesting. The Super Bowl 2000 “Herding Cats” advertisement by EDS sums it up nicely.3