The Art of Letting Stakeholders Have Your Way

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Nov 23, 2020
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Diplomacy is the art of letting someone else have your way.

                                                            - Daniele Vare

In two decades of mentoring and coaching business analysts (an activity I performed while working full time as a lead business analyst or product manager), I learned to identify two kinds of BAs. In one group are those who are constantly complaining that their role is not valued and they can’t get their voices heard. In the other, those who gradually become wizards of influence and have great success effecting change in their organizations no matter how junior their position is.

The difference, I’ve come to realize, has nothing to do with years of experience or how knowledgeable in BA techniques the person is. Rather, it has its roots in mental models:

  • BAs in the “my role is not respected” group are stuck in the notions developed by the field of economics in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, frequently referred to as the rational choice theory.  In that theory, humans are seen as purely rational.
  • BAs in the second group—the ones who get invited to strategic meetings and to help shape the outcomes of their projects—, recognize that this is not how the human mind works. They embrace the findings from behavioral research and achieve notable success sending stakeholders in the desired directions.

Study after study in behavioral science show that certain approaches are more effective than others when we’re trying to convince others to see things our way.  Leaders in many industries, including the public sector, have learned the wisdom of using the latest evidence of what influences behavior and applying those insights to solve practical issues.  As a result, behavioral insights have now been successfully used to convince people to reduce their energy consumption, contribute a larger amount to their retirement fund, eat healthier food, and more.

Let’s look at an example that illustrates this difference in approach, and consequently level of impact, of BAs in the two groups mentioned. Imagine a BA in the first group (the “rational choice” group), placed in charge of creating a smoking cessation program. That analyst would most likely focus on gathering and communicating evidence of how bad smoking is for one’s health, longevity, and quality of life, expecting hard data to cause smokers to quit.  BAs on the second group (the “influential power” group), on the other hand, would be more inclined to do what the most successful smoking cessation programs do: place the majority of the effort not into explaining why to quit (something the vast majority of smokers already know) but rather how to do it, using tactics from the field of behavioral science.

As pointed out by Robert Cialdini in his book Pre-suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade,

"Researchers have been applying a rigorous scientific approach to the question of which messages lead people to concede, comply, and change. They have documented the sometimes staggering impact of making a request in a standard way versus making the identical request in a different, better-informed fashion. […] And, if persuasion is lawful, it is—unlike artistic inspiration—learnable. Whether possessed of an inherent talent for influence or not, […] it is possible to learn scientifically established techniques that allow any of us to be more influential."

Given how much more effective behavioral science is to understand and change behavior, why do most BAs continue to rely on rational choice theories, producing a pile of rational arguments to support their recommendations despite the limited success achieved?

One of the primary reasons, I’m convinced, is the lack of attention given by the BA training industry to this topic. Look around and you’ll find many courses that help business analysts develop new skills. Modern Analyst even offers a Training Course Directory to help BAs choose their next step in continuous learning. And while many courses cover relevant topics such as use cases, process analysis, and effective requirements workshop facilitation, applied behavioral science is rarely or never mentioned.

Research shows that when people fail to direct their attention to a topic, they presume that it must be of relative little importance. What’s salient is deemed important, and what’s focal is deemed causal. The predominant message from BA training companies is that requirements elicitation, agile techniques, etc. are the important topics, so few analysts pay attention to other topics like the science of persuasion.

I was recently tagged in a LinkedIn post in which a BA trainer was seeking to complement her answer to question one of her students raised: “What part of being a BA you don’t like?” To me, the original answer is a great illustration of the negative consequences of BA practitioners and trainers ignoring behavioral science:

1. If the org has a culture of being too much document centric.

2. When you have to deal with requirements which seem like all are critical but you need to pick some which can only be accommodated in a particular sprint.

3. When the organization doesn't welcome new processes, new technology, new suggestions.

4. When your role is more like a documenter.
 

My answer, left in the thread:

"Since my name was mentioned, here's my reply: I have to disagree with the full list! I've worked for very document-centric companies that didn't welcome new processes and thought all requirements were critical. Found solutions for all these problems, and still loved my job there! Maybe this article will help explain my viewpoint (it was written for data scientists but applies equally to BAs)."

When I first started working as business analyst, I admit to having variable levels of success convincing leaders to try new processes, become less document-centric, follow my recommendations on what to build first and what to defer to a future release. But as soon I started reading books on behavioral science, I quickly realized that if I wanted to improve the outcomes of my projects, I’d have to change my approach to take into account how the human mind works.

For example, in one of my jobs with a traditional bank institution, I knew that writing use cases was a value-adding activity only in a minority of my IT projects. However, the PMO team had included use cases in the list of artifacts to be produced in every project and insisted on compliance. Instead of trying to convince them with rational arguments, my approach was to wait for the right opportunity to prove my point, which didn’t take longer to occur. Soon a high-visibility system enhancement went live and praise from stakeholders started to pour in. I then pointed out to the PMO that the use cases written for that project had been opened exactly zero times (a metric readily available in the document repository). A single data point, presented at the right time—after a successful delivery, when not only the execution team but I as the BA in charge of the requirements were receiving compliments from stakeholders—, accomplished more to effect change than a presentation full of facts and figures ever would.  The PMO changed the rules, and from then on I was able to decide when to adopt use cases  as part of my requirement documentation and when to go with with other artifacts such as user stories and acceptance criteria.

If you are one of those analysts frustrated with their limited span of influence, it would be wise to accept that evidence-based recommendations alone are not enough to motivate people to change. The art of “letting stakeholders have our way” is a learnable skill; the books below can be a valuable starting point for learning the general principles and concrete actions that can dramatically increase your win rate when trying to persuade others:


Author: Adrian Beal, Lead Data Scientist, Social Solutions

Adriana Beal worked for more than a decade in business analysis and product management helping U.S. Fortune 500 companies and high tech startups make better software decisions. Prior to that she obtained degrees in Electrical Engineering and Strategic Management of Information in her native country, Brazil. Since 2016, when she got a certificate in Big Data and Data Analytics from the University of Texas, she has been working in machine learning and data science projects in healthcare, mobility, IoT, customer science, and human services. Currently the Lead Data Scientist at Social Solutions, Adriana has two IT strategy books published in Brazil and work internationally published by IEEE and IGI Global. You can find more of her useful advice for business analysts at bealprojects.com.


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