Dealing with Difficult Stakeholders Who Are Resistant to Change

As business analysts improving business processes, it’s not uncommon for us to encounter stakeholders with a deep-rooted suspicion of IT and the belief that no matter what, the solution is not going to work for them.

So what do you do? In today’s video, I share 5 ways to help difficult stakeholders on the path to change.


For those who like to read instead of watch, here’s the full text of the video:

Today, I want to talk about how to handle resistant stakeholders. We received a question from the community about this particular business analyst who was working with users of a potential CRM system who really liked their paper processes. I’m there! I’ve got paper notes right here (but there are a lot of things I do electronically too). But they were resistant to transitioning over to using the new customer relationship management system and he just wondered if he’d done everything he could to help bring them up to speed on the new system and to engage them and make sure it met their needs.

Let’s talk about that. How do we handle resistant stakeholders, those who really don’t like technology?

I’m going to talk about five different strategies to make sure that you’re engaging resistant stakeholders to the best of your ability.

#1 – Build an Individual Relationship

The first is build an individual relationship. We have a whole video that I talk about different ways of cultivating a 1:1 relationship with the stakeholder and helping them understand business analysis. Make sure you’re taking some time to invest in that relationship with that stakeholder. Not just as “a stakeholder,” but as a person.

A work relationship doesn’t have to be like you are best friends and go out for coffee or drinks every day, but that you care about them as a person and that you’re not just there because of a project need, but that you have a relationship with them outside of just the context of that specific project. It’s going to help build trust and smooth the wheels for more conversations, deeper conversations, and a real basis of trust and understanding.

#2 – Understand their Current Business Process

Take time to understand their current process. Their current business process, as paper-bound as it might be, what are they taking notes on, how do they manage information, especially when it’s a resistance to technology, where does the paper come in, and why is the paper easier to them? Why does it feel easier to them? What need is that serving?

Just understanding it. Not trying to change it, improve it, or do anything to it, just let me understand your current process. I want to make sure, no matter what solution we come up with, it meets your need, your process, your way of doing your work. Because, presumably, they’re good at what they do and that’s why they’re in the roles that they’re in, and probably why there’s a little bit of resistance, too (like, “this is working for me”). Take some time and understand that. That’s a great way to also deepen that relationship with that stakeholder.

(Not sure how to document a business process? We’ve got a free Business Process Template download for you.)

#3 – Focus on Their Problems

Focus on their problems. What are they frustrated by? In the scenario that the BA brought up with us, it sounded like there was, maybe, some frustration that they traveled a lot. They had all these paper notes that were in filing cabinets that they couldn’t refer to easily.

  • Is that a point of frustration for them, or is it not?
  • Do they have a way of working around that? If so, what is it? What’s their frustration?
  • If the system could do one thing for them, what would it be? What would change the game for them?

Sometimes, especially if you’re dealing with higher level stakeholders that have a lot of power in the organization but haven’t really been involved in the project so far, this is where you can use a little bit of that influence you have as a BA. You can say,

“You know, this frustrates this important stakeholder. I know we weren’t planning to address that potential issue right away for this project, but do you think we could address some things that would really help get them on board?”

You help bring that frustration into the scope of the project, and that can help wear down some of that resistance. Now you’re solving a problem that they care about, that they want solved, and you’re bringing it into the context of the project and you’re putting it in the light of if we can solve this problem, we’re also going to solve all these other bigger picture problems, which is probably why the project got started in the first place.

I saw a project manager do this in one of the organizations where I worked. I was a contractor and everybody was new to me, and we knew this particular team was going to be resistant and that we might not get any information from them. They were just so resistant. When we got going, then they gave us the wrong information. It was craziness. So she went in and said, “Let’s just talk about your problems. What’s on your plate? What’s slowing you down?” They just gave us this overload of information about what their frustrations were. Some of it wasn’t in scope for their project, originally.

She took that and went back to the executives and said, “We really need to address this in addition to the things that you wanted to address in the first place. We might have to actually eliminate a few of your things to make sure that we get this important group up.” And it did wonders. She had just paved a trail of gold for me as the business analyst to walk behind her and say, “Okay, now, let’s get the detailed requirements for these issues that have been bothering you for a long time.” She broke down that disengagement and turned it into trust and generosity and excitement about the project.

#4 – Share Wins

As you do this, then you also want to share wins. This is a little bit above and beyond. Now that you see other salespeople working and using the CRM, once your project gets going, if you’re still facing resistance, share the wins.

  • Who are the people that are using the system effectively?
  • What are their processes?
  • How did they organize their work differently?

Share those wins and adjustments. How is it affecting their sales or their numbers? For example,

“So and so was able to leave early on Fridays because his sales notes process is so much easier.”

Whatever it is that might be important to that stakeholder, share those wins. When you see somebody having success, share that more broadly so that people start to see people are using the system and having results, and they’re solving these problems.

#5 – Secure Higher-Level Support

Those are 4 strategies, let’s talk about the 5th. That is to secure higher level support. At the end of the day, as business analysts, we have influence; we don’t have authority. We can’t fire people. We can’t remove their paper. We can’t do anything specific to make anybody do anything. Nobody can make you do anything. But as business analysts, we can’t use direct authority.

Sometimes we have to get higher level stakeholders involved. That can be escalating to the director, the VP, or the manager. Whoever is that level up from that person who is resistant. It’s up to them to say if the problem to be solved by this project, if the return on investment of using this new system is so important to the company, we’re going to stake our performance metrics on it.

“I’m going to pull out the rug on the old system, we’re going to make it uncomfortable for you not to use the new system in some way.” After they go through all the influence and authority, and ‘you need to do this’ tactics, it might come down to a much harder line. That’s not for you to do as a business analyst; this is for you to be aware of, of how these things might play out in an organizational context.

Not All Resistant Stakeholders Will Change

Fun story, or kind of a quirky story, is my mother-in-law is a retired nurse and she still talks about the day that they introduced electronic health records at her office and that led to her retirement. She consciously chose not to learn to use the new system and chose to retire instead. To this day, she doesn’t use a computer. She does not see our kids’ pictures on Facebook. We can barely get a hold of her on a cell phone. She has no desire to be any part of that technology. That was a choice. She organized her career around it and her exit from her career around it.

That happens, too, in some organizations and with some people that are truly resistant to change. You can do all these things, but you can’t force people to change. Just kind of be aware of the limits of the scope of what you can do as a business analyst. (We talked about this in more depth on Protecting Your Emotional Investment.)

Do your best. You don’t want a bunch of people retiring because of your project, but sometimes that happens and that’s okay, and it doesn’t mean you did a bad job.

I hope this answers your question. Great question. We could talk about this topic for a long time. It’s a good one; it’s a juicy one. I’m looking forward to seeing your engagement with stakeholders and helping them overcome that resistance to technology. This is the sales process that we do as business analysts in helping people see a brighter future and change the way that they need to change, that creates a positive change for organizations as well.

You’re doing great work. Thank you for what you do.

Figure Out What Your Business Users Really Want [Free Template]

One of the most important boundaries you can set as a business analyst is to be sure your business stakeholders are deeply involved in the requirements process, and have a lot of direct input and feedback. Starting by analyzing their business process helps put them in the position to tell you what they really, really want.

Business process analysis is often the very first technique used by business analysts when we start learning a new domain or analyze the scope of a project. Today, I’m offering my Business Process Template to you (absolutely free of charge!).

Download Your Free Guide – 10 Tips to Improve Stakeholder Engagement

And  if you are looking for even more tips to manage difficult stakeholders, download this free guide. You’ll

  • Save time and effort by clarifying the requirements more quickly.
  • Build stronger relationships that elevate your reputation and career.
  • Improve project outcomes by communicating more effectively.

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