People working together as a team

Building relationships with your business stakeholders

In September 2018 I started a new job at a big company in the Netherlands, Coolblue. It was the biggest company in my job history so far and I also started working in a very big and important team. So as you can imagine, stakeholder management became a big challenge for me.

During this year and a half I learnt and improved a lot at stakeholder management. Besides, how I see and approach my collaboration with them today it’s a lot different. In this article, I want to share the tricks that best work for me so far. I’m going to focus on business stakeholders and the ones that are more relevant for you.

So, how to have a good collaboration with your business stakeholders? And more important, how can you understand each other?

At the beginning of my career, I always considered the business stakeholders as ‘the others’. Whenever the business stakeholders had an idea or a request that I didn’t like or see the value of it, my approach was similar to this: ‘oh, I need to convince the stakeholders of my idea because I know it’s the best solution for the user.’ Or ‘The stakeholder is asking X but of course, he/she doesn’t know about UX so he is wrong. I need to convince him/her of a different approach’. And well, it’s normal as a junior designer to think like this, but it’s a completely wrong approach. They are on the same team as you. You share the same goals and you want the same outcome (delivering the best experience for your users and making a profit). The only difference is that they see it from a different angle, business.

Besides, they are people, like you. Instead of considering them as ‘the others’, try to understand them. How you may ask? Get to know what’s important for them; what worries them; why they want to achieve that goal; what motivates them, etc. By doing this, you will understand better their push backs, concerns and their suggestions. And more importantly, you will be able to address their concerns in a better way and achieve your goals.

How to build empathy with your business stakeholders?

The key is to ask a lot of questions and listen. As UX designers we are very used to ask a lot of questions to our users, right? We know that we need to build empathy with them because it’s part of our job. Use the same strategy with your business stakeholders. At the beginning of each project ask them a lot of questions. Questions like: Why do you want to achieve this? What’s your personal goal? What’s the real problem? How does success look like for you in this project? What worries you the most about this project? etc. Focus on what’s important for them, and why. With this, you will understand better the problem that you need to solve. And also, you will build trust with your stakeholder. And if they come to you with some ideas, don’t reject these ideas directly. Even though maybe these ideas don’t seem right. Try to understand why they are suggestion those ideas first.

2- Build a relationship with them:

When I was struggling with stakeholder management, my team lead at that time told me that at work we handle two types of relationships with every teammate: the professional and the personal one. And the better is your personal relationship, the easier and better will be the professional one. And it’s absolutely true. If you trust each other, you know each other, and in general, if you like each other, you will solve all the arguments that you might have a lot better. Because you will have arguments and disagreements, it’s natural since you are working with these people every day. But the most important thing is how you approach these disagreements and how you solve them.

This is very linked with the previous point, empathy, but more on a personal level.

Be interested in their lives, what they like, what motivates them, why they work in that company, etc. Our personal life affects a lot our professional one. Besides, you might find that you have a lot of things in common and maybe you will even become friends!

How to build a relationship with your stakeholders?

1–1 syncs are the best in my case. Of course, I don’t have 1–1s with all my stakeholders, but I do have them with the most important ones. During these 1–1s syncs, instead of going into work talk, take a few minutes to ask them: how are you doing? How was your weekend? If they told you one week ago they are planning their holidays, ask them how is it going, etc. Be interested in who they are beside the title they have.

If you don’t have 1–1s syncs with your stakeholders yet, you can propose it to them. Depending on your projects and the type of relationship you have, these syncs could be weekly, bi-weekly or even monthly. In my case, most of my syncs are bi-weekly, I only have weekly sync with my PO.

Team events: This is another space that you can use to get to know them better. It’s quite normal to have team events from time to time (yeah, when we are not in the middle of a global pandemic, of course). And it’s very important that you don’t skip these events. Sometimes you will think: ‘Oh I prefer 100 times to go home and watch something on Netflix than going out with my colleagues.’ Or if you prefer books rather than Netflix, like me, you will think: ‘I’m in the middle of this crime book, so I prefer to go home and continue with it, rather than spending more time with my colleagues.’ Believe me, I’m an introvert so I know what it’s like. But just don’t, join those events and use this time to get to know them better. Usually, during team events, people are more casual and informal and they try to avoid talking about work, so you can get to know a different part of them.

3- Transparency: I am a very transparent and honest person in my personal life. I don’t really like going behind someone’s back or do things under the radar. So, that’s how I approach my work as well. I always share with my stakeholders what’s my plan, how I want to approach a project and why it’s important to approach it in that way. And I expect the same from them, which not always happens. But if you make the first step and you start being transparent with them, probably they will start being more transparent with you too.

How to be more transparent?

Well, this one is easy, right? Share your progress with your stakeholders. Of course, you don’t need to share every single thought or idea that you have on your mind. But, share at least the important ones and make sure that you don’t keep secrets. Also, at the beginning of my career whenever I ‘discovered’ an interesting user insight I was like: ‘oh this is super interesting! I’m not going to share it with anyone and then I’m going to present a super good solution’. Well, just don’t do this. Share the insights that you learn along the way with your stakeholders and discuss with them the ideas that you have. In the end, you will achieve a better solution.

4- Collaboration: When I started in UX I didn’t collaborate a lot with business stakeholders. The approach was more the following: a business owner comes with a project, I understand what he/she needs and why and then I went to do my work. And I only checked again with them once I had something ‘almost finished’.

But, with time, I realised that this is not the best approach. First of all, because it can lead to a lot of misunderstandings. You can end up coming with an ‘almost finished solution’ that they were not expecting. Or they won’t understand your reasoning behind it. Besides, there are a lot of benefits from collaborating closely with business stakeholders. They have a different perspective than yours, as I said at the beginning of the article and is very valuable to take it into account.

How to foster collaboration with stakeholders?

Invite them to some of your user sessions, share with them your thinking process, your doubts/concerns along the way and also your first sketches. Don’t wait until you have the perfect design in high-fidelity perfectly aligned. It will help them to get more familiar with UX and understand how you work. Also, they will give you their perspective on it, which is a must-to-have to come up with a good solution. Besides, this helps a lot in building trust as well.

5- Managing their expectations: This is a must. In the end, everyone has expectations with their teammates. So, it’s very important to manage these expectations very well. Because not only you will prevent misunderstandings but also, you will build trust with them. If you wait till the last moment to say: ‘I’m not going to meet the deadline, sorry’, they will never know if they can trust you whenever they come to you with a request. They are going to think that you are not a reliable person. But on the other hand, if you communicate as early as possible that something is going wrong, they will know that they can count on you.

How to manage expectations?

  • Communicate your progress on a regular basis: If you work in Scrum, you have the daily stand-ups. Try to communicate as much as possible about your progress during the stand-ups and also, the issues that you are experiencing. If you don’t work in Scrum or updating your stakeholders daily is too much, you can have a ‘weekly check’ with your most important stakeholders where you communicate to them what you are going to do that week. In my case, I attend the daily stand-ups and during this short meetings I not only share what I’m doing, but I also share research insights that I found the day before, early sketches or designs, etc. This helps my PO to be up-to-date on what I’m doing without having 20 meetings each week.
  • Always communicate very clear what’s your plan and when you expect to finish the projects or the phase that you are in. At the beginning of a project is good to communicate to your stakeholder how long do you think the project will take and how you are going to approach it. Then, during the project, you can ‘update’ this timeline, because of course, plans and timeframes might change while you are working on the project. For example, usually, I have one big and broad project per quarter. So at the beginning of the project, I always communicate to my PO how much time I need for the research and what I’m going to do and when we can start the design phase. This could be something as simple as saying: ‘before designing we need to understand the users needs because we have X, Y and Z unknowns. For this, we can have some 1–1s interviews with key users and then a focus group to validate the proposed flow. We will need approximately 2 weeks. After this, we can start the design phase with some prototypes that we can test’. Or, you can make a visual representation of it, so it will be more clear for everyone what’s the plan for this.

This has two main benefits: one the one hand, your stakeholders will know what they can expect from you and why you are approaching the project in that way; but on the other hand, you are making them participants of your process and plan, so you can discuss with them what’s the best approach. As your stakeholders get more familiar with your process and UX they will start asking questions and suggesting different approaches, which is something super valuable because then, they will help you to improve your process. Besides, I found that this is one of the things that helps to build trust the most.

6- Feedback: Getting and receiving feedback is very important. Not only about the hard skills, but also on how we are collaborating and working with our teammates. You are a team, so you need to improve as well on how you communicate and work together.

But of course, this is difficult. It requires trust and a good relationship.

How to receive feedback on collaboration?

First, let me get something straight, you are not going to receive feedback unless you ask for it. You need to be proactive about it. In my first team at Coolblue, I got used to asking for feedback to my closest stakeholders once in a quarter (at least). So what I did was to set up meetings with my stakeholders and I asked them for specific feedback. I sent the invitation upfront and in the invitation, I specified that I wanted to receive feedback and on what. This gives the other person time to prepare.

Now, in my current team, I use a more informal/lean approach because it suits them better.

I find these sessions very valuable because we get to know more to each other and we can discuss any misunderstanding that we might have. After these sessions, my relationship with my colleagues always improved.

And lastly, the most important tip, building trust. As you might have noticed, I don’t have any bullet point on ‘trust’ but I do mention trust a lot of times during the article. This is because I believe that by doing that (collaboration, empathy, transparency, etc) you are going to build trust with your stakeholders. And don’t get me wrong, building trust with your stakeholders should be your goal number 1. But of course, this requires time and patience, you are not going to achieve it from day 1. In the end, professional relationships work the same way as the personal ones, and you didn’t trust your friends or your partner since day 1, isn’t it?

Keep in mind that every person is different, so you might have the perfect way of working with one person, but with another one, you might have to change certain things. The same happens with teams. So be ready to adapt and be flexible.

Business stakeholders can be our best buddies in the projects and they can add a lot of value to it if you let them. It’s worth it to invest time in these relationships, and at the same time, learn a little about the business world. Not only it will help you in your stakeholder management, but also, it will make you a better UX designer who can achieve better solutions for their users by taking more points of view into account.

I hope these few tricks will help you to improve your stakeholder management. It’s very hard to become good at it and it requires a lot of practice and ‘people’ skills. But it’s also a very necessary skill for UX Designers. So it’s completely worth it to work on it.

Do you want to learn more:

And, of course, as this is based on my experience, I’m curious, how do you manage your stakeholders? Do you do something different than me? Let me know :).

English is not my mother tongue and I’m always looking for improvements. So if you spot any typo or any phrase that could have written in a better way I would love to read that feedback!

Do you want to know more about me?

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  • I’m also a co-organiser of Ladies that UX Amsterdam, a UX meetup based in Amsterdam. Check our next events here.

I'm a UX & Interaction Designer based in Amsterdam working at Coolblue. | Co-organiser of Ladies that UX Amsterdam.