Getting the Horse to Drink

Lack of stakeholder and user involvement is often cited as a primary reason for project failure and the greatest source of project risk. Unfortunately, whether you adhere to an Agile, traditional, hybrid or mixed methology, getting and keeping customers involved in the development process is always a challenge. I explained previously that the most common reasons customers state for not being involved are that they are too busy, they don’t trust the technical team’s ability to deliver, and that they don’t see the meetings as productive.

The first reason is generally beyond a project manager’s control, and the second is a lack of trust between stakeholders and IT that is often the result of a combination of factors including, unfortunately, customer involvement. The third, however, is something that development teams and stakeholders can improve upon, and in so doing reduce the amount of time required and improve customer collaboration.

Managing stakeholders with conflicting interests, schedules and priorities and keeping them focused and on track has been compared to herding cats. I gave some guidelines for preparing for meetings with customers in a previous post, because if you have prepared for the meeting and your participants know what to expect, half the battle is won. However, in my experience, facilitating the meeting is an art more than a science, and some people are naturally better and more comfortable with it than others. That said, I don’t consider myself to be well suited for it, but through practice, observation, self-evaluation and peer review and by following some basic guidelines, I have successfully kept design meetings with groups of 20+ participants focused and productive.

  1. Use visuals to guide the conversation – Recording points where everyone can see them, even on something as simple as a whiteboard or flip chart, keeps people focused on the subject. Presenting information and decisions publicly also gives people a cue that their point has been recorded or something has been agreed upon, even if it’s only that they agreed that they haven’t agreed and will return to this point later. Visuals also better enable you to see who is paying attention. If you notice that fewer and fewer participants are looking at the whiteboard or flip charts, it’s a good cue for to take a break.
  2. Use a ‘Parking Lot’ – Following on the previous point, I always have space where I record anything that comes up that can’t be resolved or may require more time than can be spared in the meeting. This is a critical tool for time-boxing and keeping a meeting moving forward productively. If the participants don’t have the expertise to answer a question, or if a question arises that is out of scope for the current meeting, I record it on the Parking Lot flip chart and explain that at the closing of the meeting it will be assigned to someone or to another meeting. Then we move on.
  3. Explain what you’re going to do and why – For example, in the initial conceptualization meeting for a project, I first explain that we need to get a rough idea about who is going to use the system and what sort of activities they’ll be doing with the system, and that we’ll explore the details of these things in subsequent meetings. I also explain the Parking Lot and what will happen with items placed on it.
  4. Be as consistent as possible – Try to use the same elicitation techniques and record the results in a consistent manner. You need to be flexible of course, but you want your participants to focus their energies on contributing, not trying to learn context diagrams, use case diagrams, ERD, class diagrams and so on. Even just starting and closing the meeting in the same manner will help get participants into a routine.
  5. Take breaks – Aside from the research demonstrating the limits of our attention span, participants have other responsibilities that need to be respected. The longer you push a group without a break, the less likely you are to keep their attention away from their ever-growing pile of emails, phone calls and work. I aim for 10-15 minutes break time out of every hour, and try to avoid pushing a group past 1 hour straight, and I tell participants this at the start.
  6. Summarize the meeting’s accomplishments – Everyone should leave the meeting with a sense of having accomplished something, agreement on what was accomplished and an understanding of what comes next. Even a long list of items on the Parking Lot is significant if there are now plans for attacking them. Ensure Parking Lot items have a plan, and heartily thank the participants.

This list of guidelines is the bare basics. I’ve taught two-day courses on facilitating meetings which weren’t long enough to cover everything, and there are many books written that go into great detail on subjects like body language, elicitation techniques, group dynamics and how to ask questions. However, the best source of information are your participants. Set up a one-on-one call with one of your participants and ask them what went well, what didn’t, and what they think could be done better, and if you practice Agile, make follow-ups part of your retrospective.

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