Stakeholder commitments on a sliding scale

One of the challenges with speaking to senior stakeholders—and really I mean the stakeholders who sign the cheque that pays for our work—is being able to promise them something that is both in line with what they’re expecting and is realistically deliverable.

The worst kind of a conversation is when we promise a “thing”, defined in terms of one or more features. “We want a widgery service,” they say. “Great, we’ll give you a widgery service,” we reply. When we deliver the thing we present something that does indeed fit the description of a widgery service, but the stakeholders say, “That’s really not the kind of widgery service we had in mind.” Or it goes the other way: we put in every kind of feature we can, for fear of not delivering to their approval, and overrun our own time and budget.

Of course, continuous dialogue helps, and that’s easiest if our stakeholder group is well defined. Sometimes stakeholders—even very influential ones—can be wide and not so well defined. In those cases continuous dialogue is more difficult.

That’s one of the many reasons I’m such an advocate of clarifying the value of a project or programme, most clearly expressed in a “value statement”. This way, instead of saying “We will deliver you this thing,” we say, “We will deliver you this value,” or “We will improve this aspect of your life.” That value is the centre of our conversations and communication with stakeholders. We are no longer delivering a “thing”, we are delivering an improvement on some sliding scale. The more we move along that scale the better it is. Progress is not about delivering features, it’s about delivering benefits. Quantifying that value eliminates almost all the ambiguity, and simplifies conversations and expectations significantly.

Of course, we still deliver “things”. But the things we’re delivering is less important than the benefits they bring. The things we deliver are a means to an end, not an end in themselves.

Photo by The Bunny Maker