Wrangling Stakeholders Like Wrangling Sharks

In a previous life I worked for a season on a dive boat in the Barrier Reef, taking visitors to witness the wonders of the Cod Hole and Coral Sea. As part of the trip we’d organise a shark feed, and my role as a safety diver was to keep the sharks from biting the customers (and to keep the customers from antagonising the sharks). It was always interesting seeing the fear on customers faces before they got into the water with these powerful beasts, and the sense of exhilaration as they conquered those fears. In truth, the majority of sharks are harmless and they have more to fear from us than we do of them. Especially if you understand their behaviours and are sensitive to the warning signs.

Interestingly, I see that same fear on many of our clients faces when they talk about their senior stakeholders. They describe them as powerful, yet mysterious beasts, prone to outbursts of anger and able to kill a fledgling project at a moment’s notice. Often our role in the project is similar to that of the dive operators and dive guides of my youth, taking our customers on a journey of discovery, exploring the natural habitats of these enigmatic creatures, and helping them understand what really drives their behaviour. By running workshops, organising interviews, and actively understanding their needs, it becomes clear that most of these stakeholders aren’t a threat. If anything, they are the ones who have been misunderstood.

Senior stakeholders often find themselves in a highly competitive environment, with limited resources at their disposal. Driven by aggressive targets, they need to keep the momentum going or risk floundering. Like sharks, they may occasionally snap, but this has more to do with the way they understand the world and prioritise their efforts, than any real sense of aggression. As long as you hold your ground, treat them with the respect they deserve, and put the work in to understand their motivations, you will return from the engagement with a new-found understanding of their challenges.

Ultimately our job is to create a safe space for our customers to explore the needs of the organisation and encourage these insights to happen. We do this by putting ourselves into often unfamiliar territory, and approaching each new challenge with confidence, empathy and respect. We occasionally run the risk of getting bumped or bitten, but better us than our clients. If that does happen, we know that it’s not deliberate, and we’ll have learnt an important lesson along the way.

User Experience Designer, startup advisor, occasional conference speaker, @Clearleft founder, and curator of @UXLondon and @LDConf

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