Stakeholder Engagement Strategy for the Missing SME

Kathy Claycomb

Kathy Claycomb

Stakeholder Engagement Strategy for the Missing SME
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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.

Crickets.

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
Surveys/Questionnaires
BrainstormingProcess Modeling
Requirements WorkshopsConcept Modeling
Collaborative GamesInterface Analysis
Process Analysis
Prototyping

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!

–K.

 

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About the Author

Kathy Claycomb

Kathy Claycomb

Kathy Claycomb is a Netmind Senior Instructor and brings over 30 years of IT experience to the classroom. She has participated in all phases of application development across a wide variety of platforms, and has used numerous methodologies to analyze, design and implement systems. Kathy holds a Bachelor of Science in Business and has worked in transportation, training, and software development organizations. Her first love is teaching, and throughout her career she has always managed to spend a portion of her time instructing. Kathy's students consistently praise her teaching abilities and her talent for drawing on her personal experience to enhance their learning. Connect with Kathy on LinkedIn.

4 Responses

  1. At times I have found even framing it in terms of what is in it for them does not work. Example it was my responsibility to get everyone to fill in their time cards by the end of every two weeks.

    One person I would always have to chase down, trying with emails, messages, and catching him in the halls or at his desk.

    So what I did was the next time it happened I went to him and asked out of curiosity what the issue was regarding getting the timesheet filled out. He claimed he did not keep it up to date, and then never had time at the end of the two weeks.

    So what I did was I gave him brutal bottomline that technically pay could be withheld; also, more importantly, I flipped things to kind of the impact it was having on me to always need to chase him down, and that I believed he could do better, and I was willing to help him find a solution to improve any obstacles in his way. He said he would get it done, and we set a firm deadline of time and date to be completed, and voila it was done. His respect for me also went up, and I went on to further improve the relationship over time to have him submit on time moving forward.

    Thank you for the article Kathy and have an amazing day,
    Adam.

    1. Hi Adam, thanks for your comment! Sorry I didn’t respond sooner — I’ve been on a beach sipping Mai Tais for the last two weeks 🙂

      I think there is a difference between the way we handle a direct report (or someone over whom we have some level of control) and someone over whom we have little or no control.

      In my past life, I have supervised a lot of people. In those situations I have sometimes had to resort to an approach much like the one you describe above. I actually used a 2×2 to help me organize the conversation. The sections of the 2×2 were:
      What I see (where I described the problematic behavior as specifically as possible)
      What that means (where I outlined the impact to the organization or other individuals)
      What I need (here I detailed my expectations, again very specifically)
      What happens if I don’t get that (the consequences go here)

      Unfortunately, many BAs are working with project team members where they can’t deliver any sort of ultimatum or implement any consequences. That’s where the other strategies I outlined can come into play.

      Thanks for the feedback!

      —K.

  2. The form is good with key information for getting to know your stakeholder(s) and referencing throughout the project. I would also remind individuals to use the area of concerns to identify risks. Ensure area of concern is not only concerns you have; but rather, concerns, the stakeholder has regarding the project and their involvement. Remember to revisit the form and keep the form up-to-date especially for long-term projects. Also, for large projects which may have many different stakeholders,I would suggest transposing the fields on the word document into Excel and listing the stakeholders in the first column and keep a spreadsheet this will allow for easy review and filtering /sorting for similarities and outside anomalies regarding stakeholders.

    1. Linda, good suggestions! I particularly like that you are paying attention to the stakeholders’ concerns. All too often we are focused on what we need from a project perspective, and we lose sight of the fact that it’s all about the stakeholders. Make sure you know their “WIIFM” — What’s In It For Me!

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