Why stakeholder engagement?
A skilled business analyst plays a critical role in the success or failure of a project. Business analysts engage with stakeholders to build relationships, foster ownership, influence outcomes, gather information and facilitate the resolution of problems.
Cultivating good relationships is very important. Stakeholders are more willing to answer questions, show up for meetings, review documentation, and help the business analysis process to go more smoothly if the business analyst has established good stakeholder rapport.
Business analysts need to take the time to understand their stakeholders and consciously facilitate and sell the value in what they do. They need to educate stakeholders in the value of the business analysis process and how it will benefit them.
A successful business analyst should possess a range of interpersonal skills for the successful delivery of business benefits. They need to continuously adopt forward-thinking ways to engage and maintain the interest and participation from key stakeholders to support the success of a project.
Projects are about people, and success is about creating value for those people.
A large part of the business analyst’s work requires engagement to gather data about their stakeholders’ issues and needs. There are several other ways to elicit requirements (e.g. market research, data mining and surveys), but the majority of techniques require some form of interaction with the people in the organisation.
Therefore, the ability to engage stakeholders in different settings, establish and maintain interpersonal rapport, and then effectively gather data from them using different techniques is the most important skillset that a business analyst contractor or consultant should have to be successful in their career.
In your experience, why is stakeholder engagement important to the outcomes of your projects?
How to establish and sustain stakeholder engagement
The following tips will help you build and sustain good engagement and rapport with stakeholders.
Identify and engage stakeholders early
People want to be heard and valued. It is human nature to want to be understood. Therefore, involving people early in the process is absolutely critical to the success of a project. You will benefit greatly from carefully identifying which stakeholders are needed early, who is crucial for influencing change, what level of involvement they should have, and then from there, how much dialogue is necessary as the work progresses. Expectations, roles and objectives must be known out from the outset. This way you start to form a collaborative community that fosters ownership, accountability and transparency.
Gone are the days of extended workshops. Time boxing activities creates a sense of urgency, and urgency results in focus and objectivity. The more we think about something, the more complicated we make it, and the less likely we are to prioritise it. Therefore, highly structured and focused engagements that are achievable are ideal for time-poor stakeholders.
Be clear and organised
Most of us are accustomed to getting multiple calendar invitations daily. There is nothing more frustrating than poor attendance regardless of how much you believe your agenda to be valuable. Stakeholders want to know the what, where and why, and they want to know it quickly. Be clear and concise in your invite agenda, take care of logistics (e.g. dial in codes), and get to the bottom line so attendees know overarching purpose of the meeting.
Learn to facilitate
As a facilitator of a session, you should be a guide with enough knowledge on the topic to drive a collaborative session whereby stakeholders feel empowered to collectively navigate findings, outcomes and action points. Participants are more likely to own and drive action points if they are part of the discussion and decision making.
Express concepts clearly and visually
The more stakeholders can quickly grasp ideas, the more likely they are to translate those concepts in to play, or relay information effectively to key colleagues involved in the delivery.
Be consistent in your approach
If you are running multiple sessions, be consistent so that your stakeholders can learn your approach and your questions. This will enable them to think ahead and be more responsive and productive in your elicitation sessions. If you are running a new session, be sure to lay out how the session will work and what will be expected of participants. No surprises.
If you don’t do this, you will lose your stakeholders’ attention. Take as many opportunities that you can – and is appropriate – to reinforce why they are participating in the business analysis process. Business analysts are seen as agents of change and stakeholders often feel threatened by their presence. In the early stages, it is beneficial to involve business leaders to clearly explain why this work is being done and how it will impact on the organisation. It is not always the case that people will lose their jobs, or that change is a bad thing. In fact, change could rightly be focused on providing better products and services and not cutting jobs. Therefore, clarifying any doubts or concerns in the early stages and reinforcing benefits throughout the process will help stakeholders adopt the process and focus on better outcomes overall. Honesty and transparency is key to this communication.
Every time you engage with your stakeholders is an opportunity to strengthen their requirements. For instance, if you are running multiple requirements sessions, ensure that you start by briefly recapping the last session to capture any further clarifications. This will strengthen your requirements by discovering new information, and it will show your stakeholders – in their words – that you are paying attention and making sure that you have got it right.
If you say you’re going to do something on a certain day, then do it. Otherwise communicate a new expectation before that time. People will remember you more for good quality work over being a little late on delivery, especially if you alert them to the changed schedule. This will build trust.
Use eye contact, listen and respond
Always respectfully maintain your focus on your stakeholders. Get on their side of the table and focus 100% on understanding their needs. Listen to them attentively and respond and ask questions based on what they have said to you. We often have the habit of listening only so that we can say the next thing on our mind. In this case we are not truly listening, and we are missing valuable opportunities to fully understand their requirements. Listen fully, reflect on their statements and ask questions that demonstrates that you are listening.
Be firm with the agenda
When you are engaging stakeholders, you are spending most of the time getting them to talk about their needs. This is important, and a good session can be like a comfortable conversation which is all about them but is guided by you to meet your data gathering needs. However, in more formal settings like workshops and meetings, everybody’s time is important and keeping to the agenda will give you the best results and demonstrate value to your stakeholders. Don’t allow yourself or your stakeholders to get off track.
Don’t ever criticise, complain or gossip
Don’t ever criticise, complain or gossip in front of your stakeholders. Don’t even do this with your colleagues as it is habit forming and reinforces a negative attitude that will convey through degraded stakeholder interaction. If you want to get the best outcomes possible for your organisation, people need to be comfortable in talking about how they do their work and the issues that affect them. Sometimes they will convey confidential information and things that should not be repeated due to political or social reasons. In workshops and meetings, they will tell you about processes and systems that are below optimal, and they will talk about other stakeholders in a negative context. Each session is an exercise in trust, so use the information given to you respectfully. Integrity is key to gaining trust with your stakeholders.
In your experience, consider 2 or 3 areas in your stakeholder engagement efforts that you have done very well. With respect to the tips given above, can you add anything else that has worked for you?
Remember: projects are about people, and success is about creating value for those people. Everything we do depends on how we relate to people. Therefore, in addition to recommendations made above, the following two books are highly recommended.
How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie.
Take into consideration the tips given above and your reading of the book or the synopsis provided. Identify 2 or 3 areas that you can improve that will help with building and sustaining good engagement and rapport with stakeholders.
The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz
The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz explains four rules of thumb to set you on the path to personal freedom and happiness through releasing self-limiting beliefs. The Four Agreements overrides the need to look outward for the answers to personal challenges and explains a simple code of conduct to apply in everyday life.
It is not a textbook on computer science, nor a book about business analysis. However, here the book’s message has been applied to the work of a business analyst. The Four Agreements are:
- Be impeccable with your word. Speak with integrity. Say only what you mean. Do not use the word to speak against yourself or others. Do not criticise or gossip. Always do what you say you are going to do, and if the plan changes, communicate with the relevant people. This way you manage expectations and you show respect for yourself and others. Sometimes changing the plan can be hard especially if an important deadline is looming. However, it is better to be remembered for good quality work.
- Don’t take anything personally. Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality. Business analysts are agents of change, they ask a lot of questions and get knee deep in peoples’ business. Understandably, stakeholders get defensive, and sometimes say upsetting things. There are a multitude of reasons for their behaviour and they do not relate to you. In these situations, be aware that there may be tension in a person that is caused by trust issues concerning your project, and not you. This is worth carefully investigating as the issues they have may create a big impact on your project.
- Don’t make assumptions. Find the courage to ask questions and to express what you really want. Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstandings. Making assumptions about a statement a person has made can be problematic and may lead to misinterpretation of business requirements. Instead of assuming, ask questions to solve a problem and state what you need to progress your project. Asking questions will bring clarity and help you get to the root cause of an issue.
- Always do your best. Under any circumstance, simply do your best. Do not punish yourself if plans do not go as expected or a deliverable needs a re-write. Learn the lessons and apply them next time. Keep your head up and move forward with a quiet determination to improve on your work. Always doing your best means that you cannot say a bad word against yourself or others. There is never any blame, just room for improvement.
Personal note: The Four Agreements has helped me put aside a lot of time wasting and self-limiting thinking around my work and personal life. As a result, my confidence and my sense of authority and influence as business analyst has increased remarkably.
Can you identify with The Four Agreements? How can personally realising these tenets benefit your work as a professional business analyst?