Getting on the Same Page:The Importance of Stakeholder Interviews

Sep 16
2

Why Stakeholder Interviews?

At the beginning of each new project we undertake at Design For Use, members of our team conduct a series of interviews to establish the scope of a project and ensure that all of our client stakeholders have a shared vision. Interviewing each member of the client team helps the consultant (us) and the client alike understand and agree upon the following:

Goals and Vision
“What are the objectives of your team and the organization at large from this project? What are your top business goals?”
Success Metrics
“What are your success metrics? How do you know this project is succeeding?”
Challenges and Opportunities
“What are the important business, technical, and other issues face in improving your website?”

Interviews are especially helpful because they provide necessary insights into the project for our team that is not yet familiar with the day-to-day dynamics of the organization. Additionally, interviews allow us to understand the relationships, work-flow, and attitudes that drive the project.

Challenges in Creating Stakeholder Buy-In

We are often met with two distinct road-blocks in conducting meaningful stakeholder interviews. The first challenge comes in securing buy-in from each client team. The attitude of many people who work closely with the project is initially a concern for time management. Someone with a busy schedule and impending deadlines may pose the question: “Why should I spend an hour of my time talking to outsiders about my work?” Understandably, this resistance comes from the apprehension that an outside party has been hired to tell the team member how to improve their products and services.

However, the interviews present an opportunity for the various stakeholders to voice their concerns about the project. Any information the team member volunteers about their role in the organization or their concerns about the execution of the project is information that helps form the foundation for understanding the larger scope of the project. It’s not often that someone asks “What do you do?” and actually cares about the day-to-day specifics of your job. As a result, the stakeholder interviews with the mid-level team members often turn into a “therapy session” of sorts where they are able to air their concerns to a non-threatening, objective third party.

The second challenge comes in convincing the administrative team and executives to engage in a stakeholder discussion. Again, time is a concern, but hearing the opinions of each group on the project is invaluable. Specifically, it’s helpful to interview executives to ensure that the goals and scope they envision aligns with what the rest of the employees have indicated. Oftentimes, internal confusion occurs where the workflow is divided; a team member who works daily on the specifics of a project has a different outlook than an executive who reviews the work, guides the organization and has P&L (profit and loss) responsibility within the company. The stakeholder interviews allow both points of view to be shared and validated.

The cynical attitudes that may initially be expressed are overcome by the impartial framing of questions, the anonymity of the interviews, and the objectivity of our team at Design For Use. The flow of the conversation, ranging from the employee’s specific role within the project, place in the larger organization, day-to-day struggles, larger challenges, and goals and vision allow the team members to open up and make a worthwhile contribution to the interviews.

Advantages

When each team member has been interviewed, typically anywhere between 5 and 15 employees, the findings are compiled in a stakeholder summary to share with the entire team. Reviewing the stakeholder summary as a group validates the concerns of the team members and demonstrates which values, goals, or frustrations are shared.

Additionally, the stakeholder interview summary is generated to represent an anonymous consensus about the project. Session numbers are randomly assigned to each interview group so that the stakeholder summary reflects how many sessions a specific concern or comment was made. This enables the mid-level team members to be honest in their feelings about how the project is managed and how the work flow is executed. Therefore, it serves as an objective, outside representation of where and how the project can be improved.

The feedback presented in the stakeholder summary is worded in an unbiased and anonymous way. Challenges are presented as opportunities for improvement. For example, typical comments in a summary include:

• Research and user feedback can help further develop measurable goals and create a long-term plan for the site. [sessions 4,6,2]
• Analytics and reporting duties are split between multiple vendors. The goal is to construct a holistic view of the user’s experience by examining the full spectrum of the web metrics. [session 5]
• Establishing goals and objectives at the beginning of the project will form a strong foundation and create a shared vision for the internal team members throughout the redesign process. [session 1,3]

New problems are also revealed by the stakeholder summary that team members would not be apt to identify if the interviews were not anonymous and conducted by an outside source. By identifying new problems and challenges, new solutions can be met.

Including as many team members as possible in the interviews and summary reading improves the project by creating a holistic vision. The engagements where we interviewed a smaller number of employees resulted in a disparate and incomplete evaluation of how to proceed with the project. Gathering input from as many stakeholders as possible ensures a complete review of the project.

Next Steps

In addition to the advantages of encouraging open communication on the team, the ultimate goal of the stakeholder summary is to outline the goals moving forward for the project and ensure that all team members share a collective vision as the project gets underway.

Although the stakeholder interviews are meant to supply direction for a specific project, the interviews often provide a jumping-off point from which to improve internal relationships and communication. The meeting during which the stakeholder summary is presented is often the first of many discussions that evolve to improve work-flow, communication, and project direction. The stakeholder summary can also be used as a resource for future projects with the organization, considering the information revealed in the summary generally extends beyond the scope of one single project, and actually demonstrates the larger dynamic of the company.

Assuming that each member of the team’s voice is heard, everyone feels validated that their concerns are heard moving forward. Additionally, our team at Design For Use is up to date on the project and has a better understanding of the work flow and relationship dynamics of the team. The project can continue with a shared vision from the internal, consulting, and executive teams.

Posted by: Nishant Jain
2 Comments
  1. Erin Young

    Jun 6, 2010 - 12:14 PM

    I agree with you about the importance of stakeholder interviews. I was once working for a primary client who had many partner teams who she considered to be stakeholders. She kindly arranged the stakeholder interviews for us and sat through each of them as a mostly silent observer. After two days, it was clear that the needs and scope of the project were totally different than she’d expected. Had she not been present, it’d have been hard to explain to her just how different other team’s expectations (or roadmaps) were from hers. Her eyes were opened and the project took on a much different direction as a result.

    1. calfredson

      Jun 6, 2010 - 08:56 AM

      Its encouraging to hear that the other partner teams and stakeholders were willing to speak candidly in her presence. We generally try to create private sessions so the stakeholder can speak his or her mind without the fear of coming into conflict with a partner, team member, or client with a different idea. At the same time though, it is challenging to convey the team’s ideas to an executive or superior if the two don’t have the same goals and vision.

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