Op-Ed: Let’s Play Stakeholder Roulette

By Kiran Aditham 

After a month’s absence, Simon Mathews, currently chief strategy officer at West Coast shop, Extractable, who’s also worked on the strategy side at the likes of Isobar and Molecular during his career, has returned. As per usual, it’s best he explain his latest opus. Take it away, sir.

I do a lot of stakeholder interviews. That is the first part of almost any engagement when we are learning about a client’s business and digital challenges and trying to delve into how digital may be able to drive new opportunities for them.

I keep a log of every stakeholder I’ve ever interviewed. This week with our new solar energy client the stakeholder interview counter ticked over 1,200.  Yes, I’ve interviewed 1,200 people across hundreds of companies and dozens of sectors and the sessions have ranged from incredibly helpful to accusatory, “why are you asking me this”, and pretty much everything in-between.

Besides memorizing every piece of conference call hold music ever, some useful repeating patterns have emerged across my sample set of stakeholders. So, here is my personal guide to some of the major ‘types’ of stakeholder we see across businesses and more importantly, how to get the best from them, to help drive the project forward.

Yes, it’s stakeholder roulette time!

The digitally-distant leader is typically the most senior person we may talk to. Sometimes the CEO, or Business-Unit head are there to give us strategic direction on where the company as a whole is heading. Unfortunately he, and it is mostly men, are a few years older than the digital revolution and lacks hands on immersion in the digital world. I’ve met a couple of CEOs in this category that get their assistants to print out their emails, for example. Anyway, despite the fact that we are not looking to them to ‘design’ the next website they feel the need to throw in strange, specific ideas. And of course if it’s the CEO suggesting it, the team can tend to think of it as a definitive requirement.

A couple of techniques can work well here. First, the read back – read back the idea to the digitally-distant leader but reframe it somewhat into a more general requirement.

Statement: “I think we should have weather on the homepage”
Read back: “So you are looking for tools to engage consumers on a frequent basis”

And secondly, just keep asking question at a higher level, about company growth, new markets and the competitor landscape.

The twin of the digitally-distant leader is the digital strategic leader. Personally my favorite interviewees, these are leaders who know understand how digital is driving change and wants to harness it against their vision.  No ‘handling’ techniques are needed here, I usually just sit back and listen.

The narrowly focused product manager is critical to many projects. Often the person with the best knowledge of the products/services we need to market and closet to the benefits we need to express to customers and the functional details of systems the need to interact with.  But, often they are very narrowly focused on one product out of many that a user may need to get to, or narrowly focused on one KPI, such as lead generation for their product. So they tend to have a tendency to push aggressively for their needs over the wider holistic experience of users of the client’s digital platform.

Sometimes this may not matter as long as we can balance their needs with other stakeholders, but when they are pushing very hard it can be good to focus their needs against the better quality leads and higher volume that their product being part of a more holistic solution might bring them.

Some of the most hands-on digital team members can give us the most detailed and pragmatic information we need to understand the current state and what might need to change organizationally to facilitate where the future state may go. However, the stressed-out-producer is typically flat-out holding the current digital platforms together and keeping on top of basic updates, edits and bugs. As such their desires are often short term. “Can we publish content in less than two days”, is genuine request I’ve heard more than a few times. However these team members are often best placed to give true insight into how the business could be positively impacted by digital.

So, to get this insight, I’ll typically let them spend the first part of the interview listing all their down in the weeds needs, in essence, letting them de-stress, before forcing them to think from the outside in, by asking some question that dissociate from the current state, such as:

“Imagine we solved all those issues tomorrow. What would you want to be for you customers the next day?”

“If money, time and your organization were no object, how would you want to engage with customer in the future”.

Finally we have another problematic stakeholder, and a little bit of a stereotype, but we do see often in bigger organizations, the grumpy IT guy.  He is critical to the project in that he often needs to implement systems that will form the digital platforms needed. However, he has been ‘burned’ multiple times when marketing and business teams have given very poor requirements, continually changed scope or don’t understand the technical implications of their requests.

For him, it’s all about giving a path to not-increase his workload and to distance himself from the ‘marketing madness,’ while also potentially getting him excited about some cool technologies.

I will say, while we do see the grumpy IT guy we also do meet within some companies the technology achiever – the IT guy that wants to push limits and understands how to bring marketing to the table. When we see that, we know we can push the boundaries.

Those were some of the more frequent types I see in the game of Stakeholder Roulette, and although some of these profiles have some positive and negative attributes, for me, learning about a new business first hand is one of the pleasures of being a strategist.