4 Ways to Guide Your Stakeholders Effectively

Have you ever considered to what extent your SMEs and stakeholders understand “projects” and the more broad discipline of “business change”? It’s something that’s rarely talked about, but I recently had an experience outside of work that has led me to re-evaluate the assumptions I make about stakeholders’ knowledge.

I’ll tell you my story….

I live and work in the UK, but recently had the opportunity to travel to New York City.  I was fortunate enough to have some spare time while I was there, and being a typical tourist I was extremely keen on visiting the Statue of Liberty.  I decided to get the subway.  Now, I’m not sure if you’ve ever used the subway in NYC – but as an outsider it is extremely confusing.  It covers a huge area, with many complex and confusing interchanges.   To make things worse, I was trying to navigate the subway without a map.

Image of a sign in the New York Subway

Navigating an unfamiliar city is difficult – local knowledge helps!

As you might expect, I managed to get thoroughly lost – heading in the wrong direction, on the wrong line.  And even worse, I didn’t even know how to get back! After half an hour or so, I finally decided to ask for some help. After obtaining a copy of a map (and some advice) I managed to get on track and am pleased to say that I reached my destination safely, and had a great time visiting Liberty Island.

On a Project, Not Everyone is “Local”

It struck me that there are similarities between traveling in an unfamiliar city and progressing a change project.  As business analysts, we’re the residents – the “locals”.  We live in a world surrounded by change projects.  We work on them daily, and we can navigate our way through the complex junctions and intersections.   We act as professional change practitioners and this is our “day job”.  We’ve traveled on the subway hundreds of times before  – and we know which lines to avoid.

Different Subject Matter Experts and stakeholders are likely to have different amounts of project experience.  Some will be old hands – they might not live in the city, but they know it well.  For others it might be one of their first projects, and to continue the analogy, perhaps they need more help finding their way around.  They might not know which subway line they need to travel on, and they might not even know which station they need to head towards.

As BAs, We Can Provide a Map

In the same way I could have really used some help from someone local to NYC, some of our stakeholders might need help comprehending the complex network of tasks and dependencies that make up most business change projects.  They might have no frame of reference at all, and they might not understand what words like “Requirement” or “Prioritize” actually mean.  This is no criticism at all – within the project world we give very specific meanings to these terms – and it’s easy for people who are new to our world to misunderstand.  We shouldn’t assume understanding.

Four key ways to help understanding are listed below:

1. Explain the journey: Make sure key stakeholders know where we’re going and why.  Ideally, both at a project level and at an individual deliverable level.

2. Show an end-to-end map: A Project Manager will undoubtedly own a project schedule and produce a plan.  It can be useful for the PM and BA to talk SMEs through the high level phases of the plan, this will help the stakeholder form a mental model of the project in their own mind.

3. Interchanges are confusing: To people visiting a new city, subway line interchanges are confusing.  On projects, an analogy could be drawn with dependencies where workstreams or deliverables need to coincide or merge.  Some stakeholders might not fully understand these dependencies, and as BAs we can play a part in explaining them.

4. Be a friendly local: In NYC, I should have asked for help sooner, it would have made my journey so much easier.  In a project context, we can act as a “friendly local”, being available and open to our stakeholders and making it clear that we’re available to answer their questions (however small).  This is also a great way of building rapport.

The key consideration is to ensure that we support those stakeholders who are new to projects, and to understand that some stakeholders need much more guidance than others.  It’s the responsibility of the whole project team (including the PM) to provide this, but as BAs we are well placed to provide it.

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  1. Michelle Swoboda says

    Adrian, I love this analogy! Thank you.
    Too often I believe we forget that everyone is not as commited to, or as knowledgeable about the project as we are. They can often feel lost. This is not their full time job – it is ours.
    Bringing new people up to speed is a must and a challenge – specially if you are almost throught the project. However the time we spend with them is critical.

  2. Curtis Michelson says

    Adrian, what a wonderful article and metaphor. And, having got in exactly the same predicament in NYC’s subway system, I could viscerally relate to your story.

    The metaphor of the map is quite apt. I am surprised how often at stakeholder gatherings, or team planning meetings, elicitation gatherings, etc. people can go on and on without literally a map of the whole picture. Usually, after about 15-30 minutes of solid confusion, someone finally pipes up and says “okay, wait a minute, let’s see the big picture”. and then someone goes to the whiteboard and draws the wide arc of the conversation. That simple process of putting dots and lines on a flat surface is extremely clarifying, even for people who are ‘locals’. (NYC natives keep little pocket maps hidden and tucked away, too)

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