Fear & Loathing in Project Kickoff
The first experience you design is for your stakeholders — and your project’s success depends on it.
Because Rangle is a consultancy, we have the opportunity to work with many different clients over a relatively short period. Over the last two years, we’ve been able to refine a lean discovery process that allows us to rapidly align our teams with our clients and lay the groundwork for establishing clear communication channels on day one. What I realized over this time was something I had learned early in my career as a graphic designer pitching to upper management: the first experience you design is for your stakeholders.
Lose them in the beginning & you’ve lost them for good
First impressions set the tone. It is vitally important to start an agile project correctly, with clarity and alignment. As agile workflows de-emphasize documentation and focus on delivering working software early, this clarity and alignment are even more important to establish during the project kickoff stage.
Many of our clients are either taking their first steps into a lean, agile product development process or are coming from a company where they’ve partially implemented an agile process and need help figuring out why things are broken — and also that agile transformation takes time and incremental improvement to execute correctly. Don’t underestimate the level of anxiety this creates for project stakeholders. They often have their reputations on the line and sometimes even their job or the entire business.
As a traditional graphic designer, I learned long ago that you must sell your ideas and control how those ideas are received. If you aren’t laser focused, prepared and able to present your ideas in the best light, then why expect the CEO to give them any respect? The minute you show a lack of preparedness, you start to trigger the innate human reflex to revert to past principles out of fear. These stakeholders have a lot on the line. The last thing you want to do is increase their levels of fear and anxiety because they feel you don’t have a grasp on the magnitude of the situation.
Why are fear & anxiety important to manage?
Fear and anxiety are basic, primordial responses to our environment that humans developed long before our rational and logical minds.
“The main function of fear and anxiety is to act as a signal of danger, threat, or motivational conflict, and to trigger appropriate adaptive responses… anxiety is a generalized response to an unknown threat or internal conflict, whereas fear is focused on known external danger.”
Anxiety is a state where the human brain is trying to imagine and prepare for future threats, be they real or perceived. It is usually the primary emotion you have to be conscious of when transitioning companies to agile workflows — and to mitigate against with a well-designed stakeholder experience. Do not underestimate the power of anxiety to affect a person’s decision-making process:
“The Prefrontal Cortex (PFC) plays a pivotal role in executive functions that include: long-term planning, understanding rules, calculating the consequences of risk and reward, regulating emotions, problem-solving, and decision-making. Anxiety, in both animals and humans, appears to disrupt brain neurons in the PFC that are critical for making smart decisions.”
Now that we know why we need to create a good experience for our project stakeholders, what’s next? First, let’s clear up some common stakeholder misconceptions and do what product designers do best. Let’s build some empathy.
Building Empathy for Stakeholders
Drop the ego
We need to stop acting like stakeholders are out of touch or that they “don’t get it”. If you think this way, it will be evident — and you’ll miss out on a valuable resource and project partner. The truth is that your project is likely one of a dozen things they’re trying to juggle at any given time.
If you respond to stakeholders with ego, they'll react by digging in their heels and reverting to the command-and-control structure that they're used to. It will make things painful for you, for the duration of the project. This reversion to command-and-control stems from a self-preservation reflex.
The better course is to show stakeholders that you understand and are committed to the same outcomes as they are, that you want and need to understand their business and customer objectives and that you’re willing to do the work to make this happen. Your goal should be to build a strong and genuine level of trust.
Stakeholders are not approval machines
Agile teams need to create empathy for stakeholders just as they would product customers. Your stakeholders have pains and goals. Your job is to alleviate those pains and help them achieve their goals. Do this by showing the stakeholders you care just as much as they do. Ask them what their pain points are and what do they hope to achieve. Without this context, agile teams will always be out of touch with stakeholder expectations because they’ll lack the understanding necessary to make the right tradeoffs when designing and developing solutions.
Have a structured process and practice facilitation to get things rolling
At Rangle, we’ve developed a discovery process that is lightweight, repeatable and teachable. We’ve built this process with best practices in mind like Lean UX, Design Thinking and Story Mapping. Our goal is to set the tone for decision making that is decentralized, flexible and rooted in high levels of alignment and communication. We call it Clarity Canvas and while we apply it to lean agile software development, we feel it has value across many types of projects.
How we do it at Rangle
Over the next few days and weeks, we’ll be writing about this process in detail, how our design and delivery process creates an agile project management solution and all the nuances to facilitating Clarity Canvas. We’ll also get into how we are scaling it across the organization and how it’s worked on real projects (warts and all).
If this sounds interesting then check back with us often, follow us on Twitter (we always post blog updates there), or sign-up for our newsletter below and we’ll deliver updates to your inbox.
As an added bonus here is a video of a talk on this subject by one of our fantastic Product Designers, Naomi Bower.