From stakeholder-biased to user-focused innovation: 4 lessons from the field

In this post, you'll learn more about:
  • How to identify environments where stakeholders might have more influence than users on your innovation initiatives;
  • How to set the stage to go from stakeholder-biased to user-focused innovation;
  • How to have your stakeholders build empathy for your users;
  • How to bring back users upfront & center.

When you want to create products & experiences, the first thing to focus on is the actual user of your new, shiny thing. Indeed, without someone willing to pay for it, you won’t go very far with innovation. Yet, it’s strange to see so many stakeholders fighting against including potential users in defining these new products & experiences.

Over the years, I’ve been involved in many projects where despite wanting the best for our users, our organization strongly believed that it knew what they wanted. This was especially true with high-visibility initiatives.

Working in this context is always tricky. You want to make sure that you are doing something that will answer your users’ needs. At the same time, you don’t want to go against your stakeholders’ points of view. When both don’t go in the same direction, you need to be careful.

How do you bring back the user upfront & center without hurting your stakeholders? Let’s see what I learned over time in order to deal with these situations.

1. Understand who you’re dealing with

Stakeholder analysis should be one of the first things you do when starting a project or joining a new team. After all, you will probably spend a lot of time studying your users. Why not put the same efforts into understanding the different groups that also have a stake in your product/project?

Stakeholders also bring an additional dimension that doesn’t really apply to your users: politics. Indeed, your stakeholders often have control or influence on many resources you might need (money, information, etc.). They might also be helpful in removing roadblocks and can be great ambassadors to help you convince others. No matter how useful they can be, things can also go wrong if you don’t deal with politics properly – and stakeholder analysis is a great way to achieve it.

I must admit that I’m usually very passive when the time comes to do a proper stakeholder analysis. I’m doing it informally, as I’m getting in touch with or learn about new people. However, this prevents me from proactively adapting my approach, which can be quite important to maintain good relationships with stakeholders from the start.

Over time, I identified some signs that a more thorough stakeholder analysis might be required:

  • You’re working on a high-visibility project for the organization;
  • People have strong opinions & ideas about what the project’s outcome should look like, especially before it’s started;
  • Everyone wants to review every artifact you create;
  • You’re asked to produce very frequent progress reports;

If you checked any of these, be careful 🙂 . Since I’m too lazy busy with my projects, I haven’t written that much about stakeholder analysis yet. But if you’re interested, there are great resources out there, like NN/g, the PMI, and the Product Collective.

2. Analyze the current state of user knowledge

You probably have done a lot of user research in the past (and hopefully, recently too). Insights from this research might seem obvious to you, but it’s probably not the case for all your stakeholders.

Reviewing & analyzing what you have on hand, to begin with, will help everyone to get on board. It will also bring some focus on the users, and confirm some of the points of view your stakeholders might be holding on to. At the same time, it will also highlight the same strong points of view that are not backed up by research (yet).

Once you shared this knowledge with your stakeholders, hopefully, they will be more user-focused. However, from my experience, it’s usually not enough to convince them to onboard actual users in our innovation process.

In order to do so, you must innovate slowly with them.

3. Start innovation slowly

Setting up innovation workshops is an art. Facilitating them with strongly-minded stakeholders doesn’t make things simpler. And adding a forced virtual setting is a good recipe for a disaster.

There are good ways to set up virtual workshops for success. And there are some things you can do to go from a stakeholder-biased innovation workshop to a user-focused one. Over time, I realized that you cannot force it down the throat of your stakeholders; they have to figure it out themselves, and it takes time.

I usually follow the same 3 steps to achieve this.

3.1 Prepare your stakeholders to think like users

Across various projects, I elaborated an interesting approach to change my stakeholders’ attitudes without confronting them. Since they usually come to these innovation workshops with a “traditional” brainstorming mindset, I use this to structure the workshops and bring back the users front & center.

I initially planned to talk about those activities in this post, but I got too much content to share! If you want to learn more about this innovation approach, stay tuned! I’m writing another post about it.

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Keep in mind that you must tailor this to your own context. You will stay on the road to success if you keep a gradual approach, from stakeholder-oriented to user-focused techniques.

3.2 Divide by leveraging the community mindset

Using the right activities is only one part of the equation. Choosing the right participants is one of the other things to consider. While there are many different lines of thought on how to group participants, I found out over time that success will depend on how strongly-minded are your stakeholders.

Indeed, if you have diverse participants, I got better results by grouping them into more homogenous groups first and bringing them back together after. For sure, it takes more time to proceed like this, but it helps to make sure everyone speaks up. It also prevents participants from pointlessly arguing with their stakeholder-focused mindsets.

By working with your different stakeholders’ communities first, you will be able to slowly switch them to a user-focused mindset. This will make discussions with a larger group much easier since you will all share the same focus: the user.

3.3 And conquer by creating compelling innovation stories

By working the ideation activities with a community mindset, you’ll help each of these communities to get on the same line. However, how do you bring those different communities to a shared understanding & vision?

With all the material captured in the different innovation exercises, you should be able to identify shared ideas & gaps between communities. Some common themes should also emerge quickly enough. From my experience, these themes are the ultimate way to bring all your stakeholders together in a user-focused mindset.

One of the last activities I like to organize with all my stakeholders is an ideation brainstorm aligned with those user-oriented themes. And to make innovation less frightening, I found that asking participants to categorize their ideas on an incremental-to-transformative scale helps a lot.

The final output: great user-focused ideas which your stakeholders believe in, and that could support your organization’s growth in either the short or long term.

4. Then only, validate with users

At this point, your stakeholders should be ready to hear real, actual, or potential users’ feedback. It’s now time to get to your usual toolbox and bring them in the loop.

Even if you spent a lot of time ideating about the future, there’s a possibility that the retroaction you’ll get from the field will demolish your carefully prepared ideas.

However, even if it’s the case, your stakeholders will be more inclined to listen and adapt. And at this point in the process, it shouldn’t feel like a failure anymore 🙂

Do you like what you’re reading?

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By submitting this form, your information will be shared with MailChimp, which I use to manage my newsletter.

Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

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By Eric Provost

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Eric Provost

Making sense out of chaos as a BA & UX specialist

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