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Stakeholder Engagement Strategy for the Missing SME-EN

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Kathy Claycomb

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Those of you who’ve been to one of our classes know that we do follow-up calls with our students as part of our Make Learning Stick program. Today I had one of those calls, and a question from one of my students inspired this blog. This student asked me for some stakeholder engagement strategy tips that she could use if she couldn’t talk directly to a stakeholder as she was developing requirements.

I refer to this as the case of the missing SME. We’ve all been there… and, believe me, there are lots of variations of this question:

  • “I schedule meetings, but they don’t show up.”
  • “I try to schedule meetings, but they say they don’t have time.”
  • “I leave messages, but they don’t call back.”
  • “I send emails, but they never respond.”

This particular student had been given a document and was told to write requirements based on it. She hadn’t been given any subject matter experts to whom she could talk. All she had was the document, and she felt strongly that it was not nearly detailed enough. So, what’s an analyst to do? Here are some thoughts I shared with her based on my past experiences – both as an analyst and also as a former manager of SMEs whose time is in demand.

Ask for What You Need, and Be Specific

This may seem a little obvious…but start by asking for what you need. Depending on your team structure, your escalation path may be different, but make it known that the resources you’ve been given aren’t sufficient.

Here’s the kicker. Think of your needs like another requirement…just like you want to develop specific requirements for your project, you have to give specific requirements for your elicitation and analysis activities.  Look at the difference between these two requests:

I need access to a subject matter expert for this project.”

I need to determine which underwriting rules will apply to automobile policies issued in the State of Texas once the new Insurance Board regulations go into effect on December 15th.”

Having managed subject matter experts in the past, I find that analysts tend to want an “assigned” SME that they can go to whenever they have questions. It’s convenient and easy for the analyst but can be challenging for a business area whose staff is already busy with their “real” jobs. There’s also a tendency to want to have a very senior expert assigned so that the analyst can get any question answered at any time. Again – convenient and easy for the analyst, but now doubly challenging for the business area because the senior experts are likely to already be in heavy demand.

Start first by thinking through what you need to learn. Then go ask for resources that can help you learn those things. It often opens up lots of options. It may also make people more open to working with you. I’m much more likely to respond to a specific request for information than an Outlook invitation to an hour-long meeting with a vague subject.

If you do have to call a meeting, use our Happy Meeting Box Template to establish your agenda and let your stakeholders know what to expect.

Find Out Why They Say “No”

I recently had a student who was complaining about a stakeholder who never attended the team meeting. I asked the student why the stakeholder didn’t come.


The ensuing class discussion revealed a long list of reasons why stakeholders don’t participate in projects, ranging from the hilarious (they didn’t know where the room was and didn’t want to ask) to the “how did I miss this” ones like:

  • They were on vacation (yep)
  • The meeting time just doesn’t work for them
  • They don’t read their emails (literally)
  • They don’t think they’re the right person to participate
  • They don’t see the value in the project
  • They don’t understand what you’re asking for

One of the most important questions an analyst can ask is “Why”.  If your stakeholders don’t come to meetings, ask why!  If they don’t respond to your notes, ask why! There are a lot of underlying causes of disengagement that can easily be addressed.

I actually suggest a more proactive approach for your stakeholder engagement strategy. We teach students to do stakeholder analysis at the beginning of a project (or whenever they first get assigned to a project). Knowing a little bit about your stakeholders up front can help you get them engaged and supportive from the very beginning.

Use our Stakeholder Analysis Worksheet to help keep track of important information about your stakeholder or stakeholder group!

Make It About Them

One of my favorite acronyms is WIIFM.  WIIFM stands for “What’s In It For Me”.

I am definitely guilty of going to someone and asking for help and framing it in terms of what’s important to me: “Hey Frank, I need to schedule some time with you so I can nail down the requirements for this story. I have a deadline next Wednesday.”

Well, good for me! That’s all about me and what I need to get done, but what’s in it for Frank?

Will Frank finally get a feature he’s been waiting for? Will this make a task easier for him to do? Will it offload something he spends lots of time on? What’s in it for Frank? Frank is way more likely to make time for me if I frame my request in terms of his WIIFM instead of mine.

Be Creative in Your Approach

There is almost always more than one source for information, and more than one way to get it. The IIBA recognizes 18 separate methods for eliciting information:

Research-Based Techniques

Collaborative Techniques

Visualization Techniques

Benchmarking & Market AnalysisObservationBusiness Rules Analysis
Document AnalysisInterviewsData Modeling
Data MiningFocus GroupsMind Mapping
BrainstormingProcess Modeling
Requirements WorkshopsConcept Modeling
Collaborative GamesInterface Analysis
Process Analysis

What do I need to know? Before you pick up the phone, send an email or create a meeting notice, ask yourself some key questions:

  1. Who has it, or where does it live?
  2. What elicitation technique (or techniques) would work best?

It’s so easy to just go ask an expert. Easy for you, that is. It’s not always so easy for them since they are trying to balance the demands of the project with the demands of their “real” job.\

Build Trust

If and when you do interact directly with your stakeholders, take every opportunity to build their trust in you. How do you do that?

  • Do what you say you’re going to do
  • Make good use of their time
  • Keep things said in confidence actually confidential
  • Refrain from speaking negatively about people or situations

Stakeholders with whom you have strong, trusting relationships are much more likely to give you time when you request it. Work to build that trust, and work even harder to retain it. Remember that it takes only a second – or a single careless comment – to destroy a good, trusting relationship.

What Not To Do

Don’t escalate without first understanding. If your initial temptation is to call somebody and complain when you have a resource problem, go re-read section 2 above. Imagine how unhappy you’d be if somebody went to your boss and complained about you without first trying to solve the problem directly with you.

So remember…Get to know your stakeholders, and think before you ask!

Many of our resource challenges can be addressed by being thoughtful and creative. We’re all strapped for time. Be careful what you ask for, and use it wisely when you get it.

Happy Engagement!



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Sobre el autor

Picture of Kathy Claycomb

Kathy Claycomb

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