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Dealing with Difficult Stakeholders

The question will undoubtedly arise during your tenure as a business analyst, ‘How do I manage a difficult stakeholder?’

I once encountered a stakeholder, a very highly respected mathematician, who had developed an application based on a mathematical model of his weather systems. The algorithm was amazing. The application sucked. It was my job to:

1. Ensure his model used enterprise data so it could be shared amongst other applications I was helping develop and,

2. To either refactor and debug his application or port his algorithm to a new User Interface so it was available to a larger user group.

Long story short, he hated me. More accurately maybe he hated the idea of me. So what did I do?  I elicited his feedback every step of the way. I made him a full partner in the change experience. But I also put my foot down and let him know the change was going to happen. I recognized that he was heavily invested in the application he had grown from scratch.  The larger community wasn’t aware of his accomplishment.  So I suggested he demo his application to a larger group of users. He got the opportunity to share his vision with the enterprise.  People were amazed at the model and he received his just credit and some back slaps. But during the course of the demo he was also slightly embarrassed because there were technical issues and bugs that were apparent (as I knew they would be) which motivated him to embrace the improvement process.

It also helped to understand what was important to him and his own analysis process. Because he was the logical type I crafted my analysis plan to rely more heavily on statistics and fact based decision making.  After showing him the error logs for his tool as compared to other applications for example, we agreed together that reducing the instances of error and downtime needed to be our joint #1 priority before we exposed the application to a larger audience.  Because I always kept him informed, treated him as my primary stakeholder and never pulled punches, he began to see me more as his partner who could help him through the change process and bring his model to a much larger audience. For that to happen, he had to let go of complete control and we eventually repackaged his model/algorithm into an entirely new UI consistent with our other enterprise applications. Looking back, the only thing I would have done differently is put my foot down on Day 1 instead of Week 3.

It’s also critically important to find out the concerns of your most difficult stakeholder. In another example, I had a difficult stakeholder group who were code enforcement inspectors.  You know the guys who condemn houses?  As a group they were refusing to use their 2 year old mobile application. Citizen complaints raged as their investigation backlog grew.  When their contractor mistakenly demolished the wrong house, the Mayor’s office finally decided to hire me as a consultant to improve their systems and processes.  The workers grumbled and pushed back on requests for changes. I decided to select the least tech savvy, most senior vocal influencer and rode with him for a solid week. Every morning at 6 a.m. we met the crew for coffee at McDonalds.  I donned work boots and shadowed him as he walked around in dark condemned houses in the worst part of town. We met the guys for lunch at the 7-11, conversed and I truly began to understand their challenges and why they hated the old application. I also understood that the fear of using the technology was elevated due to a general lack of experience with web technology.  At the end of the project this ‘difficult stakeholder’ helped me teach the training course and volunteered to be the ‘go to guy’ for all other inspectors! Listening and putting yourself in the stakeholders shoes really works.

So here are my steps to better stakeholder relationships.

  1. Identify key stakeholders who can throw a wrench into your project’s success. Key stakeholders may be members of the executive or management team. They could just as frequently be informal team leaders or members who influence others. Ensure you are proactively nurturing those relationships.
  2. View them and treat them with the importance a key stakeholder deserves. Nothing turns a stakeholder into hostile mode faster than getting a cold reception and the sense that his opinions are not valued.
  3. Take the time to truly understand their perspective and concerns. Put yourself in their shoes. Not only will you be investing in the relationship but you will likely also learn important information that can help craft your analysis, deployment, training or support plans.
  4. Ensure there are ample opportunities for your stakeholders to provide feedback in a setting that is most comfortable to them. Some people aren’t comfortable sharing in a group setting or JAD session. 
  5. Be sure to incorporate their feedback into the overall plans so their concerns are addressed.
  6. Recognize that change doesn’t happen overnight. Employ an appropriate change management strategy.
  7. Create opportunities for your difficult stakeholders to show leadership and excellence.  Everyone wants to be recognized for their accomplishments.
  8. Engage them to help win the buy-in of other team members who sit on the fence.  Nothing ensures your project’s success like having the team leaders champion the change.

The success of a business analyst depends heavily on the relationships he builds along the way.  Pay attention to the key stakeholders and remove this obstacle so you can get on with the business at hand.

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  8 members liked this article


AlexisIW posted on Monday, July 28, 2014 12:27 PM
Great examples
sbowling999 posted on Tuesday, July 29, 2014 4:49 PM
Natalia posted on Thursday, August 14, 2014 8:18 AM
Very helpful and thought-over, thank you!
Alarice posted on Monday, July 13, 2015 12:37 AM
I feel that stakeholders don’t always appreciate the value that a business analyst adds. This is why they struggle to accept them into a role.
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