Stakeholder fixation syndrome: the elephant in the digital room

From my unscientific sampling, the realisation that ‘digital change’ is about people seems to have dawned quite widely now. From the proceedings of Learning Live to blog posts and contributions on LinkedIn and Twitter the ‘digital is about people and culture’ theme is gaining momentum. This is a good thing and will, hopefully, dissuade folk that installing that grand system upgrade will make much of a difference in the pursuit of their goals.

I further hope that it will focus effort on changing the ways teams work: the skills they include, how they are lead and their focus on their users. (For those interested in exploring this topic further there is an interesting new course from the Digital Leaders Academy looking at that and related themes of digital. Disclaimer: I am facilitating these events).

Conversations beneath the surface of this topic have uncovered a cause for some concern, however. There is a cloud on the digital horizon obscuring a clear view of what users need. To qualify a little, this cloud is most prevalent in the skies of the internal digital initiative but not exclusively so. It takes the form of what I call “stakeholder fixation syndrome”.

Symptoms of stakeholder fixation include a lack of user evidence in development, preference of aesthetic design over utility, insufficient user testing and worst of all, the introductory video from the CEO/SVP/MD (persuasion to use and understand a tool is not a comforting sign at the top of the home page). These are signals of a product which is being steered inwards and upwards to the central viewing platform of the organisation. Senior stakeholders often reflect requirements that might be needed by the organisation and consumers they would like to serve. Frequently, they will articulate the user needs they want to see or believe should be there. Distance from the frontline and a lack of familiarity with the troops often obscures the reality. These needs differ from the, often messy and confusing, ones of real users frequently lacking time and attention to make such tidy, rational choices. Products need to be steered directly for users to have a good chance of success.

In the early months of 2011 many senior stakeholders arrived back at work after Christmas with their brand new iPads. It was a heady time. Heads had been turned and the new form factor was heralded in boardrooms far and wide. I remember a mock-up of overnight TV ratings being shown to a senior fellow (almost always a chap) on his prized device and generating much excitement for a project. The fact that tablet usage was in the low single digits, at best, was swiftly overlooked as the designers took their new direction from on high. As we now know, tablet usage is a thing of the past by and large and it never really did have a significant impact. Rupert Murdoch seems to have had a visit from Santa around that time too.

Most information systems selection and implementation goes through the stakeholder mill in a similar but more structured fashion. The needs of the end-user play a quiet second fiddle to the lead of the senior stakeholder with the noise amplified by their peers. The diagram below simplifies one example of how this might look in the case of the humble learning management system. A steering group and governance function can easily decide what would be ideal rather than what will work best.

LMS chain

A surefire sign of stakeholder fixation syndrome taking hold is the creation of the one-stop-shop product. One-stop-shops are beguilingly tempting for stakeholders: they look tidy, unified and organised and answer the internal logic of the business (or a perception of it). Sadly, from a user perspective they are often irrelevant and restrictive. We tend to prefer to have a problem solved with singular effectiveness than all of our problems wrapped into a monolithic solution. We are accustomed to mess and with well designed tools can navigate it well enough. Even Amazon has not launched a social network or a search engine.

Stakeholders are problematic, yes. Ignoring them creates even greater problems, however. They are keepers of decision gates in organisations and of the oxygen of budget and headcount. Not to be trifled with. Evidence of user need and behaviour are always sound allies. Reports and presentations help but the principle of “show don’t tell” often serves best. Show the evidence gathered from testing and experimenting. Show the quotes, recordings and conversations from testing sessions (video is great if you have the time and people). Show the prototypes and the experiments themselves and how the design has evolved. Better still, install the app for them and let them play and tinker. Bring users to life and the worst impulses can be replaced with insight. Furthermore, be clear about the metrics that will signal success and failure and make sure they are easily and simply available.

I realise that enlightened stakeholders do exist. In many cases they are keen to learn as well. I also know that other kinds of stakeholders are prevalent and need careful handling. So, whilst the realisation of the human elements required of digital transformation is to be welcomed we also need to recognise some of the more senior human challenges in making those changes stick.