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Strategy and Stakeholder Management

In order to influence the decisions that drive design forward, Strategy and Stakeholder Management become inseparable. In this article, I will talk about the importance of understanding and identifying Cultural, Social, Political dynamics of working with teams and stakeholders, master collaboration, and have a good grasp of what it takes to become a Trusted Advisor.

I’ve previously posted about a Design Strategist Multiplier program that myself and my colleague Edmund Azigi were putting together per request of Scott Lietzke, our VP of Design at SAP SuccessFactors, the need of a new kind of designer, which might in tandem with the operations side of design. In this article, I will argue that the skills required for a design strategist should take senior craftsmanship and leadership to a new level in order to influence Strategy and Stakeholder Management.

TL;DR

  • An effective strategist will need to continuously review and agree on stakeholder expectations. Therefore, strategist will need Stakeholder Analysis and Management skills to: mitigate issues caused by virtual, international projects; find effective channels of communication; ensure stakeholders are communicating effectively.
  • I find important that designers understand the co-relation of communication and relationships, and the importance building trust.
  • There are two frameworks I have found very useful to systematically grow your influence: the Servant Leadership model and, the Trusted Advisor.
  • Trust must be earned and deserved. You must do something to give the other people the evidence on which they can base their decision on whether to trust you. You must be willing to give in order to get.
  • Listening is essential to “earn the right” to comment on and be involved in the client’s issues. We must listen effectively before we can proceed with any advisory process.
  • Our work will only make into a product with we can get stakeholders to commit. Without commitment, advice giving is merely the expression of opinions.

Strategy and Stakeholder Management

As I mentioned in the first post of this serieswe need a different kind of senior designer. We need designers working on user experience teams must first advance from a tactical designer to a strategic designer. They can not only move pixels, but translate design insights in a currency that business stakeholders can understand. After that, he or she can get teams to paddle in the same direction.

Design ManagersDesign Strategists
Skills– Motivation and mentoring
– Internal and External communication
– Culture creative and management
– Cross-department alliances
– Budgeting
– Bi-polar: analytical and intuitive
– Thought leadership
– Empathy with corporate pressures
– Ability to produce tangible, engaging and stand-alone deliverables
Collaboration– Mobilising resources / alliances across the portfolio in response to the strategy blueprints
– Internal and External communication with senior leadership
– Bringing visibility to both internal and external challenges and opportunities by looking at Strategy Blueprints across the portfolio
– Come up with recommendations / plans to address common challenges and opportunities
Adapted from McCullagh, K., “Strategy for the Real World” in Building Design Strategy: Using Design to Achieve Key Business Objectives, Lockwood, T., Walton, T., (2014), Publisher: Allworth Press; 1 edition (November 11, 2008)

In the previous post of this series I suggested we start with four skills: thought leadershipfacilitating decision makingproject managementstakeholder analysis and management. In this post we will deep dive on what it takes to influence Strategy and Stakeholder Management.

Stakeholder Management

Most projects in global companies — an area of design that I’ve been practicing for more than 20 years — are plagued with communication issues. An effective strategist will need to continuously review and agree on stakeholder expectations. Therefore, strategist will need Stakeholder Analysis and Management skills to:

  • Mitigate issues caused by virtual, international projects
  • Find effective channels of communication
  • Ensure stakeholders are communicating effectively

Leadership and Influence

In order to achieve these, Strategy and Stakeholder Management must become inseparable. To that end, I found important that designers understand the co-relation of communication and relationships, and the importance building trust.

A good way to start is to understand and identify Cultural, Social, Political, and Technical issues of working with teams and stakeholders, master collaboration, and have a good grasp of what it takes to become a Trusted Advisor.

The single most important thing you can do to improve communication between you and your stakeholders is to improve those relationships, earn trust, and establish rapport .

“Stakeholders are People Too” in Articulating Design Decisions, Greever, T., 2020

These will speak more for you than the words that come out of your mouth in a meeting. I couldn’t agree more with Greever (2020) when he says that it’s ironic that Uxers are so good at putting the user first, at garnering empathy for and attempting to see the interface from the perspective of the user. Yet, we often fail to do the same thing for the people who hold the key to our success.

That involves a few key soft skills, particularly influencing without authority.

The True Measure of Leadership is Influence – Nothing more, Nothing less.

Maxwell, J.C., “The Law of Influence” in The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership: Follow Them and People Will Follow You, (2007)

Be relational, not positional: barking order is positional, It assumes that your employees will rush to obey simply because you’re in charge. But remember, leadership is influence. Be tuned into their culture, background, education, etc. Then adapt your communication to them personally (“The Law of Influence” in The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership: Follow Them and People Will Follow You, Maxwell, J.C., 2007).

The correlation between communication and relationships

The grasp of such important concepts is what differentiate people with delegated authority and earned authority. And let’s not kid ourselves! These things take time! Just reflect for a moment:

  • How long does it normally take to connect with someone? Describe the signs of connection
  • How you connected with someone? Did you initiate the relationship or did they?
  • Up to now, why did you think it was or wasn’t important to connect with people in your work environment?

Far from being universal, the art of persuasion is one that is profoundly culture-based.

Meyer, E., “Why versus How: The Art of Persuasion in a Multicultural World” in The Culture Map: Breaking through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business, (2014)

Patience and flexibility are key. Cross-cultural effectiveness takes time. Developing your own ability to recognize others’ reactions and adapt accordingly will help you be increasing persuasive when working internationally (“Why versus How: The Art of Persuasion in a Multicultural World” in The Culture Map: Breaking through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business, Meyer, E., 2014)

The correlation between character and relationships

One way I’ve found useful to influence strategy is to find ways to helping stakeholders achieve their goals, and let go of “my designs”. So, yes — Leadership is about influence — but to become the ultimate leaders, you must humble yourself and become a servant first. So, I’ll draw from the Servant Leadership handbook here.

The Servant Leader

While servant leadership is a timeless concept, the phrase “servant leadership” was coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in The Servant as Leader (Greenleaf, R. K. “The servant as leader“. Robert K. Greenleaf Publishing Center. 1970), an essay that he first published in 1970. In that essay, Greenleaf said:

“A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong. While traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the “top of the pyramid,” servant leadership is different. The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.”

A fundamental leadership quality is the ability to operate from love and care. Throughout human history, the great leaders who transformed society for the better all possessed tremendous strength along with a powerful capacity for caring.

Sisodia, R., “Servant Leadership is Conscious Leadership” in Servant Leadership in Action, (2018)

Identifying Issues and Stakeholders

As you move up the organisational ladder, I have found that it becomes critical to not only have good grounding on your own design practice, but to understand how the organization you work for view, understand and subscribe to the different aspects of the design practice. That becomes the stepping stone to identify and rank the issues (be them enablers or barriers), as well as their corresponding stakeholders. Let’s look at design practice at a typical global company from the organization strategy’s point of view.

An organization’s strategy may be examined using multiple criteria (Mintzberg, 2003). Focusing multiple lenses on a given phenomenon – in my case here, different aspects of a design process – highlights different aspects of that phenomenon (Ancona, 2004). Each lens suggests a different set of practices and solutions to managers.

The lenses I’ve chosen to analyze the organization strategy – and a few assumptions I had about them – were:

Social/Cultural

Those issues related to the cultural and social gap between the different components of the organization (roles, functions, job titles, etc.) The more complex the organization, the more subtle and unspoken the cultural codex becomes.

I’m afraid I can’t help but being perceived that I’m creating artificial segregations here, but the reality on the ground in my experience — I’ve already migrated continents 2 times — is that sometimes it takes to acknowledge the cultural differences first (e.g.: headquarters vs. subsidiaries, “East” vs. “West”) before you can even realize that you must adjust your style of communication and ways of working in order to become a more effective designer.

This manifest itself in some many different ways that can be particularly difficult for designers to handle since if affects core tenets of our work, like how to communicate, how to provide feedback, how do we make decisions, how to disagree productively, and so on.

If you are leading a multicultural team, figuring out how to get the group members to express their ideas openly may be a challenge.

Meyer, E., “The Needle, not the Knife: Disagreeing productively” in The Culture Map: Breaking through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business, (2014)

Since empathy is the cornerstone of user centred design, I personally think designers are well positioned to facilitate collaboration and be a “bridge” between cultural differences, providing insights of how can they help the organization improve collaboration between teams.

photo of people near wooden table
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Political/Economical

In order to do better Strategy and Stakeholder Management, it’s important to identifying key players who could influence practices/policies (like training, processes, decision making rights, etc…) will give me insights of who are the stakeholders you need to get buy in for any change management required to increase the maturity of design in your organization.

Organizational

Those issues related to the current practices/policies in place at your organization, and how these foster/hinder collaboration between you and your peers, as well as with others teams; identifying and examining such policies can give you insights about what processes need to be improved.

Technical

Those issues related to technological hindrances for collaboration of design — especially in distributed teams. Looking at these issues could give insights of which tools/training needs to be provided/better used by the team in order to improve collaboration.

Contextual Relationships

What comes next may (or may not) apply to your situation and your working environment, but I find it useful to associate issues that rank high on the Social (s) would related to team’s culture and, therefore could be dealt locally); Political/economical (P) would involve stakeholder management; Organizational (O) are related to the processes in place in the organization; Technological (T) would relate to the skills/facilities/training (or lack of!) that support the design.

You can learn more about it in my talk at IxDA South America, but — for the sake of simplification, try to analyse what are the barriers for collaboration in your own from the perspective of:

  • Tools;
  • People;
  • Processes;
  • Artifacts.
Contextual Relationships and Stakeholder Management
Medeiros, I., “Contextual Relationships and Stakeholder Management” in Twists & Turns of Working in Global Design Teams talk at IxDA’s South America, (2014)

Mastering Collaboration

Collaboration is key for organizations in the 21st century, yet few business people have been trained to teach this skill. How do you advance ideas in a collaborative way and then communicate them throughout your company? (Anderson, G., 2019. Mastering Collaboration: Make Working Together Less Painful and More Productive)

Being more inclusive makes teams stronger by widening their perspective and making them more invested in the teams success.

Anderson, G., Mastering Collaboration: Make Working Together Less Painful and More Productive, (2019)

Being more inclusive makes teams stronger by widening their perspective and making them more invested in the teams success (Anderson, G., 2019):

  1. Enlisting Everyone reduces Risks
  2. Enlisting Everyone boosts Engagement
  3. Enlisting Everyone brings up cultural differences

Mastering Collaboration is one of the books in the recommended reading for the Design Strategist Multiplier Program I’m running at SAP SuccessFactors, so I cannot speak highly enough of it, and it really resonates with some of my own research on Collaborative/Distributed Design Environments in three ways:

  • Make the Space: we need an environment that allows teams to create shared understanding and context, but we also need pauses to introspect, reflect and deep dive into problems. So we need to strike a balance between working collaborative and working alone. I also resonates a lot with some of her opinions about how we don’t put enough emphasis asynchronous communication: during the time I worked from China, I often felt excluded from decision making processes since the stakeholders in the other side of the ocean tended to prefer face-to-face/video conferencing meetings to decide.
  • Set Clear, Urgent Objectives: a very easy prompt to encourage us to collaborate should be “what would happen if we do nothing?” What kind of outcomes we need to help set up for themselves that will motivates team to collaborate? Joshua Seiden has spoken a lot about outcomes over outputs, so it’s worth checking out.
  • Tell the Story: when we are facing hard times to get our concepts along, instead of blaming others for not “getting”, we should ask ourselves “what did I do wrong?” You’ve probably heard before how humans are “hardwired for stories”, but is enough evidence out how memory works that shows that storytelling is not just an engaging way to convey information, it is actually also the way memories are built.

Strategy and Stakeholder Management: Who Decides and How?

Have you ever made a decision by asking for advice from your friends or by observing what others are doing? Have you picked the clothes to wear to a party based on what your friends were wearing? Can you think of a time when you changed your beliefs or behaviors because a person in authority, such as a teacher or a religious or political leader, gave you ideas about new ways to think or new things to do? Or perhaps you started smoking cigarettes or drinking alcohol, even though you didn’t really want to, because some of your friends were doing it.

Your answers to at least some of these questions will be yes because you, like all people, are influenced by those around you. When you find yourself in situations like these, you are experiencing what is perhaps the most basic of all social psychological processes—social influence, defined as the influence of other people on our everyday thoughts, feelings, and behavior (Hogg, 2010).

Understanding the culture and principles behind how teams and stakeholders make decisions becomes critical for designers to know when, what and how to influence in order to drive design vision forward. If some team members are using principles-first logic and others are using applications-first logic to reach a decision, this can lead to conflict and inefficiency from the beginning.

Both consensual and top-down decision-making process can be effective. But members of a global team often have expectations about decision making based on the norms of their own societies.

Meyer, E., The culture map: Breaking through the invisible boundaries of global business, 2014

When these cultural differences collide, it leads members of global teams to respond emotionally to what they see as ineffective behaviors of others on the team. Worse still, most of us are not even aware of the system of our own culture uses to make decisions. We just follow the patterns without thinking about it.

banking business checklist commerce
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The Trusted Advisor

Based on all the challenges of influencing Strategy and Stakeholder Management I’ve listed so far (becoming a servant leaders, knowing how decisions are made, etc.), one framework I have found very useful to systematically grow your influence that works really well in combination with the Servant Leadership model is the Trusted Advisor.

As David Maister puts it in The Trusted Advisor, “there is no greater source of distrust than advisors who appear to be more interested in themselves than in trying to be of service to the client.  We must work hard to show that our self-orientation is under control.”

You might be an employee of a company, but I noticed that having a “consultant” mindset while dealing with Stakeholders helped me better define the role I want to have in the relationship, and helped me think about the way I could help them as “clients”.

This is yet another challenge for designers: putting clients’ interests in front of their own can be really hard for them because they’re always under huge pressure to deliver what their stakeholder believe is needed (e.g.: “create a beautiful interface for this product that I’ve designed without a designers’ input”). 

The Trusted Advisor understands that there will be times when the client’s best interests would be better served by spending more time in the problem space at risk on impacting their self-imposed deadlines and constraints. 

Why Trust is Important?

When it comes to teams, trust is about vulnerability. Team members who trust one another learn to be comfortable being open — even exposed — to one another around their failures, weaknesses and even fears. Now, if this is beginning to sound like some get-naked, touchy-feely theory, rest assured is not that is nothing of the sort (Lencioni, P. M., The five dysfunctions of a team, 2013).

The journey of every high performing team starts with addressing the absence of trust (Lencioni, P. M., The five dysfunctions of a team, 2013)

Vulnerability-based trust is predicated on the simple — and practical — idea that people who aren’t afraid to admit the truth about themselves are not going to engage in the kind of political behavior that wastes everyone’s time and energy, and more importantly, makes accomplishments of results an unlikely scenario (Lencioni, P. M., The five dysfunctions of a team, 2013).

If building trust is important, then how does one becomes a trusted advisor?

How to Win Trust

Trust must be earned and deserved. You must do something to give the other people the evidence on which they can base their decision on whether to trust you. You must be willing to give in order to get.

There are two important things about building trust. First, it has to do with keeping one’s self interest in check, and, second trust can be won or lost very rapidly (Maister, D. H., Galford, R., & Green, C, 2021).

The Art of Listening

Effective trusted advisors are (it should be no surprise to designers) very good listeners. Listening is not a sufficient condition by itself, but it is a necessary one, the second step in the Trusted Advisor’s five state process:

  1. Engage: Let’s talk about…
  2. Listen: Tell me more…
  3. Frame: So the issue is…
  4. Envision: Let’s imagine…
  5. Commit: I suggest we…

Listening is essential to “earn the right” to comment on and be involved in the client’s issues. We must listen effectively, and be perceived to be listening effectively, before we can proceed with any advisory process. Cutting the chase without having earned the right to do so will usually be interpreted as arrogance.

Maister, D. H., Galford, R., & Green, C. “The Art of Listening” in The trusted advisor, (2021)

A trusted advisor might say, “What I like about your idea is X; now help me understand how can we use it to accomplish Y”. Through such language, the advisor constantly lets the client know that the client is respected and that the two of them are free to discuss with great candor the specific merits of the idea at hand.

Commitment to Strategy and Stakeholder Management

The dictionary give two meanings for commitment: (1) an agreement or pledge to do something in the future, and (2) the state or an instance of being obligated or emotional impelled. The first is about action; the second is about emotional state. It is the second the keeps us in the realm of the personal and emotional, which is what e think commitment should mean in the context of trust (Maister, D. H., Galford, R., & Green, C, 2021).

Without commitment, advice giving is merely the expression of opinions.

Maister, D. H., Galford, R., & Green, C., “Commitment” in The trusted advisor, 2021

As designers, the output of our work will only make into a product with we can get stakeholders to commit. What follows is a series of questions you can ask to help assist you on getting commitment to Strategy and Stakeholder Management (Maister, D. H., Galford, R., & Green, C, 2021):

  • What is going to get in the way of getting this done?
  • What do we intend to do about it?
  • Who needs to be brought into the loop?
  • Who should do what part?
  • What information do we need.
  • When shall we check in?
  • What are the key deadlines?

Managing Expectations, Strategy and Stakeholder Management

A central part of building the commitment to Strategy and Stakeholder Management is to carefully manage the client’s expectations about what is and what is not going to happen in solving the problem (Maister, D. H., Galford, R., & Green, C, 2021). When down well, this can build great trust by demonstrating that the advisor is knowledgeable about solving problems of this kind, and can anticipate in advance where the pitfalls and contingencies lie.

We must ensure that our clients gain a clear understanding of what they can and cannot reasonably expect from us, and of what both they and we must do. Expectations (on both sides) should be identified and understood up front.

Recommended Reading

Ancona, D. G. (2004). Managing for the Future: Organizational Behavior and Processes (4th edition ed.). South-Western College Pub.

Anderson, G. (2019). Mastering Collaboration: Make Working Together Less Painful and More Productive. O’Reilly UK Ltd.

Blanchard, K., & Broadwell, R. (2018). Servant leadership in action: How you can achieve great relationships and results. Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler.

Greenleaf, R. K., (1970), “The servant as leader“. Robert K. Greenleaf Publishing Center.

Greever, T. (2020). Articulating Design Decisions (2nd edition). Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media.

Hogg, M. A. (2010). Influence and leadership. In S. F. Fiske, D. T. Gilbert, & G. Lindzey (Eds.), Handbook of social psychology (Vol. 2, pp. 1166–1207). New York, NY: Wiley.

Lencioni, P. M. (2013). The five dysfunctions of a team, enhanced edition: A leadership fable. London, England: Jossey-Bass.

Maister, D. H., Galford, R., & Green, C. (2001). The trusted advisor. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Maxwell, J. C. (2007). The 21 irrefutable laws of leadership: Follow them and people will follow you. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.

McCullagh, K., “Strategy for the Real World” in Building Design Strategy: Using Design to Achieve Key Business Objectives, Lockwood, T., Walton, T., (2014), Publisher: Allworth Press; 1 edition (November 11, 2008)

Medeiros, I. (2014, November 19–22). Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: Twists & Turns of Working in Global Design Teams [Conference presentation]. Interaction 14 South America, Buenos Aires, Argentina. https://www.designative.info/2015/01/05/tinker-tailor-soldier-spy-twists-turns-of-working-in-global-design-teams-talk-at-ixdas-south-america-2014/

Meyer, E. (2014). The culture map: Breaking through the invisible boundaries of global business. New York, NY: PublicAffairs.

Mintzberg, H. L. (2003). The strategy process. New Jersey: Prentice Hall

By Itamar Medeiros

I'm a Strategist, Branding Specialist, Experience Designer, Speaker, and Workshop Facilitator based in Germany, where I work as Director of Design Strategy and Systems at SAP and visiting lecturer at Köln International School of Design of the Cologne University of Applied Sciences.

Working in the Information Technology industry since 1998, I've helped truly global companies in several countries (Brazil, China, Germany, The Netherlands, Poland, The United Arab Emirates, United States, Hong Kong) create great user experience through advocating Design and Innovation principles.

During my 7 years in China, I've promoted the User Experience Design discipline as User Experience Manager at Autodesk and Local Coordinator of the Interaction Design Association (IxDA) in Shanghai.

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