How to get your stakeholders agreement

No matter whether you are trying to break through with your idea or you want to align stakeholder and executives around your vision. When two parties feel equally accountable for the outcome of an project advocacy shifts into a negotiation.

When I first started as a experience designer, I found myself often to be the only ‘design person’ in a room full of engineers. It was my daily bread to combat counter proposals that were technically sophisticated, but would cause a decent amount of confusion on the user side. I realized that — no matter what our job title is — we are all designers in some way. We are all passionate to build the best product, we all have opinions, preferences, and a vision. And I became a little worry that I don’t have this kind of powerhouse personality to effectively advocate for the user. Initially I felt I gotta walk in and establish as much authority in the room as anyone else to protect ‘my design’. Soon I realized, that a stack of user insights and design knowledge in my anorak weren’t enough to convincingly backup my arguments. And I had so fully internalized my vision that I failed to recognize that what’s so clear in my own mind isn’t necessarily clear to others.

It dawned on me that to facilitate a successful meetings is nothing else than a design challenge. And at some point my advocacy will shift into a negotiation. So I developed tools and best practices to facilitate ideative negotiations with my stakeholders transparently and on a continuous basis, that helped to arrive at a sense of agreement quickly.

And I’ve realized that I don’t have to be that powering personality to be an effective negotiator. Because negotiation — and leadership as well — is about persuasion, not about control. It is not about overpowering someone.

I hope that the following principles inspire you to set the stage for your next stakeholder meeting. And as a side effect you’ll nurture your organizational relationships and build rapport as a successful leader. So, Let’s get started... 


Let the air out

When multi-functional teams get together to discuss product design or road map items, oftentimes they have a pitcher in their mind. Product engineers may have a design idea or a specific technology in mind and they already know how to make it work. Customer Support and Sales may have established a concrete feature idea based on the customer feedback that they are exposed to on a day to day basis. Your stakeholder are made of really good ideas and expertise that you need on the project.

One recommendation that I found useful is to have all participants to elicit their expectations in the beginning of a meeting in order to break down the elements and compartmentalize them. Ultimately this ends up in a list of issues that you can walk through in order to arrive at a consensus. Here is what you can do:

Use a Flip Chart and jot down all the issues that circling around in your participants heads. Jot them all down, so everyone is being heard. This way you create a list of bullet points that will serve as your agenda throughout the meeting.

If your meeting already has an agenda, than that is wonderful. You may want to warm up your participants by getting to know each other's expectations, objectives and concerns. Draw a vertical line in the center of the chart. Ask everyone for their objectives to your topic, meeting or problem being solved. On one side of the chart you jot down everything that’s related to a positive outcome while on the other side all negative things being listed. For instance things that you agree that you don’t want to discuss, or things that you want to avoid to happen in the meeting, or problems that you have to deal with. 

Woman do struggle sometimes with the right disposition.
But I have not found that I have to change my personality
to be an effective negotiator.

Alternatively you can hand out Post its to everyone in your meeting and give them a few minutes to write down their ideas, goals or concerns on as much post its as this requires. Collect each post it and read it out loud. Clarify, if needed, the objective behind it. While gathering one post it after the other, you’ll be able to compartmentalize topics. Identify cluster of common overarching categories. It is not uncommon to arrive at one or two major objectives that. Now you can address these issues from an rather goal-oriented perspective instead of problem-based.

Prioritize with your participants the agenda items, goals or problems that you want to focus on in this particular meeting. Agree on the goal and the expected outcome for this particular meeting. I prefer to use a democratic approach for the prioritization part: I usually prepare three voting cards per participant that I hand out so they can lift their vote. Those three cards represent the following states:

  • MUST Items that impact the majority of your user and can have an immense impact on your product success. They would have the potential to move your company to the “next level”.
  • SHOULD Items that are not being used much, but your executives want to see them turned around.
  • COULD Items that are easy to implement but doesn’t impact many of your user’s.

Consider to archive and reuse these meeting artifacts to connect to dots at your next meeting and keep your mission cohesive.


Visualize your objective

Different people process information differently. Around 40% of people are visual perceiver, they need to see something in order to process. Visuals drive emotional attachment. The reasons behind behind that starts with the fact that 90% of information transmitted through the brain is of visual nature. When you compare for instance videos to text, 95% of people who watch a video retain the message as suppose to text were it only sticks with 10% of people. Whether you use a whiteboard to outline different options or you present design discovery — you want to give your meeting participants a focal point. So you can quickly provide a focal point that helps to move the discussion out of a dead center.

The type of visualization that you chose depends on many things. You need to know about the problem to be solved, the audience in the meeting, or the discovery being made. To present all possibilities of documentations in the length it deserve will burst this post here. That's why I am currently working on an article to about effective documentations that I have created in the past. Stay tuned!

Around 40% of people are visual perceiver, they need to see something
in order to process. Visuals drive emotional attachment.

However, the main idea is, that you want to provide that point of visual reference to everybody in the room. And maybe it’s being tweaked along the way as the discussion progresses.

Interaction concepts really need to be presented interactive - in motion. It doesn't have to be functional in the meaning that real live back end event being triggered. But it needs to demonstrate the “flow” in motion. It is difficult for anyone to wrap their brain around how an interaction suppose to work, just from watching at a static “image”. Give your audience a sense of the real live front end experience if you discuss the specifics of interaction design flows.


Set the Stage for Agreement

The principle is, when you go into a negotiation you gotta focus on the why and not the what. Let’s say your goal is to improve the usability of a product and you propose an modal error message with an repeat-button on it, but your stakeholder rather wants to have a line of error text displayed on the same screen — than it is the WHAT that is the deal breaker.

But if you ask “Why is it better to display a line of text instead of using a modal with a button?“ The stakeholder will reveal that, in a multi-step interaction flow, the system can’t detect where the error was triggered. So what she or he is actually saying is, that the system can’t link the user back to a proper location to repeat. Well, what if we provide an exit button on the module, that triggers the system to start over? This seems as an feasible alternative for your stakeholder and a decent trade off for the user that you advocate for, because it prevents bigger pain caused by a lack of recovery options.

Oftentimes it’s worth trying to figure out why someone is so hang up on their objective.
Often there is a good reason behind it. Sometimes it's about personality or other dynamics
that you are completely unaware of.

You brought the discussion to a point where you actually speak the same language. In order to do that, you have to ask the why questions and understand both well — the user’s need and your stakeholders motivation — before you trying to craft the solutions.

Oftentimes it’s worth trying to figure out why someone is so hang up on their objective. Often there is a good reason behind it. Sometimes it's about personality or other dynamics that you are completely unaware of. It is a good advice prior to the meeting to figure out who these people in your meeting even are. What are their roles that they're going to play in the project and how does that affect their behavior and their experience of the way that you work as a design and product team.

Don’t see the negotiation as a way of “getting something”. Everyone can walk away feeling and knowing that they want something but not having a chance to contribute as much as they would like to. The last thing you wanna do is create a bunch of enmities. It is your goal to find trade offs they everybody can live with and to establish a healthy relationship with your stakeholders.


Do you have feedback, questions or are you interested in working with me?
Drop me a note! I am always happy to hear back from you.