Four tips for stakeholder involvement in agile projects
Let’s talk about agile
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, the organization, and us as the digital agency works, and how it can be improved. These are the four key findings:
#1 Stakeholder management slows things down
You have to cultivate an understanding of the underlying vision of the project and what you are doing in time so that there’s no need to manage and explain things later. The term ‘stakeholder management’ implies, however, that you gradually try to get project stakeholders on board while the project is well underway. But that’s too late. That is why stakeholder involvement is a better term: it’s about involving everyone in what you are doing in a timely manner by actively providing information and asking for input.
#2 A single point of contact is inefficient
Being a digital agency, we only focus on a small part of our client’s organization. That is why we need stakeholders with vision, who know how to collect information and how to provide answers. It doesn’t make sense to have the product owner as the sole link between the development team and the company. We have to engage in detailed dialogues with stakeholders because they have the information we need at hand. This is how you keep a project moving.
#3 A bad product owner makes 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 of everything by himself. It is up to the stakeholders to generate ideas and to 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 because they get the sense that their input was not heard or incorporated. Worse still, they may not even use the product.
#4 A good product owner makes a decision
Once the product owner includes the stakeholders in the decision-making process, a decision actually has to be made. Based on all of 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 and traction within the organization to make such decisions. A couple of tips: always substantiate your choices, and be transparent. Say why explain why not. Be open to discussions and demonstrate that you make conscious choices, that is how you build trust within the organization.
How do you create stakeholder involvement?
At the beginning of each project, we identify the stakeholders together with the client. But who do we involve and at what moment in the process? We don’t only look at the end users but at everyone involved in a certain product. For instance, who has the financial responsibility? And who takes care of the security requirements? We do this with multiple people within the organization, not just with the product owner. Only this will provide a good overview of the ‘stakeholder map’.
During product development, we organize sessions with the different user groups to chart the expectations and areas for improvement, as well as to communicate the goal of the project. This pretty quickly leads us to who asks and answers the most relevant questions – those people have the knowledge to speed up the process.
Keep paying special attention to the end users, 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-based on the service design method: show empathy, ask questions, and learn from the answers. This is stakeholder involvement as well, 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 visualize the development process, for instance with sticky notes on the wall. This enables everyone in the company to see what’s happening, who is doing what, and whether or not the targets are being met.
What also works well for us is to invite the relevant people from our client’s office to come and join our team one afternoon a week 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, there’s always a distance between us and the client. If everything is built in-house, it’s usually easier to get all the stakeholders involved with the process.
The key competencies of the product owner are therefore to get the right people together, to make decisions based on the input from stakeholders, and to communicate all this clearly and in a timely manner. This means that he or she works as more of a coach and a facilitator than a manager. At companies that aren’t used to agile working, it may take a while before the product owner has a firm grip of this, but it’s worth the effort in the end because a product owner that has a firm grip on stakeholder involvement is a significant factor in the speed and quality of the project.
This article was previously published on Emerce.