Four tips for stakeholder involvement in agile projects
05 January 2018
The product owner plays a decisive role in the success of agile product development. The way he or she engages stakeholders in the development can make or break the product. We would like to share a few practical lessons from an agency context.
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Last month during a knowledge session with the product owners of the development teams of six different clients, we identified how the dynamic between the product owner, his or her organisation and us as digital agency works, and can improve. These are the four key findings:
Stakeholder management slows things up You have to cultivate understanding of the underlying vision of the project and what you are doing in good time so that the need to manage and explain in retrospect is less. The term stakeholder management implies, however, that you gradually try to get project stakeholders on board. That’s really too late. Stakeholder involvement is a better term: it’s about involving everyone in what you are doing by providing information and asking for input.
Single point of contact is inefficient
As a digital agency we are geared to a small part of our clients’ whole organisation. So we need stakeholders with vision, who can collect information and provide answers. It is not a good idea to have only the product owner as the link between the development team and the company. After all, we have to engage in detailed dialogue with stakeholders because they have the information we need to hand. This helps keep momentum in the project.
A bad product owner takes a decision
The product owner embraces the product vision, orchestrates what happens with the product and thus measures the business value. But one person can’t think up everything alone. It is up to the stakeholders to generate ideas and provide feedback so that the product owner can make well-founded choices in consultation with the rest of the company. The major pitfall is that the product owner takes on everything himself. The team he leads gets started on the product and then the users are overwhelmed by the result without a sense of their input having been incorporated. Worse still, they may not even use the product.
A good product owner takes a decision
Once the product owner includes the stakeholders in making a decision, a decision actually has to be made. On the basis of all the input and feedback, the product owner decides on the business value and assigns priorities. This means that he or she must have a mandate and have gained the trust to make the decision. A couple of tips: always substantiate your choices, be transparent. Say why, explain why not. Show that you make conscious choices, that way you build up trust within the organisation.
How do you create stakeholder involvement?
At the beginning of each project, together with the client we identify the stakeholders but before we do this, who must we involve and at what moment? Here we look not only at the users but everyone involved in a product. For instance, who has the financial responsibility, who takes care of the security requirements, etc? We do this with both the product owner and other people within the organisation. Only in this way can you gain a good picture of the ‘stakeholder map’.
During the product development we organise sessions with the user groups to get behind the expectations and areas for improvement as well as to communicate the intention of the project. This brings us pretty quickly to who asks and answers the most relevant questions – those are the people with the knowledge we need to be able to make quick progress.
Keep a special eye on the daily users here because they have important practical input that you may not get from their manager. So approach the end users and look at how the application is used. Why do they do what they do, can it be simplified, what is lacking? Work on the basis of the service design method – show empathy, ask questions and learn from them. This is also stakeholder involvement, even though it is often not perceived as such.
You can create involvement in many ways
There are many different forms of stakeholder involvement. A good aid here is to visualise the development process, like using PostIts on the wall. This enables everyone in the company to see what’s happening, who is doing what and whether the targets have been achieved.
What also works well for us is to invite the relevant people to come and work one afternoon a week at our place during the sprints so that they are immediately available for feedback, testing the application and answering questions. This is particularly useful if the product is being developed by an external agency. As a third party, we are always at a distance from the client. If everything is built in-house, then it is usually easier to get all the stakeholders engaged in the process.
The key competencies of the product owner are, therefore, to get the right people together, weigh up decisions on the basis of the input from stakeholders and to communicate all this clearly and in good time.
He or she works more as a coach and facilitator than as a manager. At companies where agile working is new, it may take a while before the product owner has a good grip of this but, in the end, it is worth the effort because a product owner that has a good grip on stakeholder involvement can be a significant factor in the speed and quality of the project.
This article was published earlier on Emerce.