Unravelling what stakeholders need

There are three popular misunderstandings that many of us get knotted.

The first is that stakeholders are implicitly aware of their wants (which they mistake for needs, we’ll get onto that in a moment) but they are quite awful at communicating them. They often state solutions instead, not seeing that it won’t solve the problem. When it comes time to share their requirements, they get stuck.

“I need a car.”

The second is that stakeholders mistake wants for needs. What they need is to commute daily to the office. What they want is a convenient and comfortable means of travelling to and from work. And if they’re expectant enough, a travel time of no more than 30 minutes.

Will a car make the distance, in rush-hour traffic, in that time? Is the train or bus faster? What about moving home closer to the office, is that an option?

The third is mistakenly believing that all stakeholders want the same thing. They don’t. The marketing executive wants something bright and shiny; the finance director wants reliable and affordable. There’s even conflict inside the stakeholders own head. They need things to be improved, but, at the same time, they don’t want things to change.

One stakeholder wants a Mercedes S-Class, another a Honda Civic.

We need to understand what our stakeholders want (not what we think they want) because it shapes the story. And if we don’t know what they start out wanting, it’s hard to take them on a journey somewhere.

What do stakeholders want?

If you ask them, you probably won’t get what you’re searching for. You’re unlikely to find the true answer. It’s our job to connect with stakeholders, figure out what they desire, and then create the transformation that will deliver that utility.

Focus groups didn’t invent Locomotion No. 1, Project Gutenberg, or Bohemian Rhapsody. Focus groups didn’t invent Virgin Airlines, Zara, or Habitat for Humanity either.

in 1999, John McNeece, a cruise ship designer, speculated about the desires of Henry Ford’s potential customers, “There is a problem trying to figure out what people want by canvassing them. I mean, if Henry Ford canvassed people on whether or not he should build a motor car, they’d probably tell him what they really wanted was a faster horse.”

Specification of dreams

Everything you’ve learnt at work and in training about doing good business analysis is about writing the specification, delivering on the requirements, getting the quality right, doing the specific thing for the specific technical purposes.

“What do you do” is about a title, a task, a deliverable thing.

Consider this job description from an insurance company:


Understanding the business requirements, and through a structured process, modelling, validating and translating it into business requirement specifications that are used by developers to craft a technical solution.

Work on solutions supporting multiple business areas, integration points and a large number of affected components. Required to work under general direction within a clearly defined accountability framework. Gather and interpret requirements from the business. Participate in the solution design process. Prepare the requirements specifications. Define the success criteria for solution testing. Analyse and decompose relevant business processes. Performing business analysis and process improvement within assigned solution project. Provide assistance to solution delivery on implementation and training. Assist (when necessary) with systems testing. Ensure that proposed test solutions cover all aspects of delivered business specification

While this is the description of a job, it’s not the description of a dream or a desire. While it’s specific, it could easily be altered without changing what it delivers.

This is how education works as well. MBA degrees are meaningless. It’s the doors that they open that we strive for.

The same is true of your product or service. You may say you’re building a feature, but don’t believe it. When you’re enabling business change, you’re offering your stakeholder a new opportunity, a step closer to their dreams and desires, not a feature.

We enable change, utility, possibility, not tasks or papery stuff.

Who’s there?

When you receive a deliverable in a broadcast email, thrown over the organisational wall, someone is avoiding. It’s delivered, but it’s not sincere. We don’t feel engaged, only the obscuration of an administrator.

On the other hand, when a business analyst shows up and exercises emotional labour to take the lead—”Here, I created this”—then the silo is broken down for collaboration and contribution.

The most effective project teams don’t always have a business analyst or a signature on every deliverable. But they act like they do.

“Here, we created this.”

The goal isn’t to share the work, it’s to make it shared.

Doing what we don’t feel like doing

It doesn’t take much to be yourself. You just need to have enough confidence to disclose your true feelings, with sufficient guts to bounce back from personal rejection.

On the face of it, being your true self sounds good.

But you’re not a professional If you do your best work by being your true self, you’re a lucky amateur. Lucky because you have a job where whatever you feel like producing in a given moment actually helps you move things forward.

And there’s often a good deal of avoiding happening too—avoiding the important work that’s needed to enable change. If all you do is follow your (one-size-fits-all) process, you’ll probably discover that the process is leading you towards a dead-end, and it’s blinkering you from seeing the important work that needs doing.

For the rest of us, there’s the chance to be a professional, to exercise emotional labour in search of empathy—the empathy to stand into your stakeholder’s shoes, to see what they desire, to understand what they want to hear.

Emotional labour means doing the hard work. It’s about gritting our teeth when dealing with challenges, or biting our tongue when we know listening will have a greater impact.

We don’t do business analysis work because we feel like it in the moment. We do business analysis work, the exhausting emotional labour, because we’re professionals, and because we want to enable change.

Emotional labour is the work we do to facilitate.