How to Win Over Stakeholders and Get Sign Off. 8 Ideas.

Paul Boag

As digital professionals, we often know what needs to be done, but convincing others can be hard. In this post, I share some of the techniques that I have found make all the difference.

We all need to win over colleagues, management and other stakeholders to do our job. Just some examples might be:

  • Getting design sign off.
  • Convincing management to approve a site redesign.
  • Receiving approval to replace a legacy system.
  • Securing a budget for a new digital channel.
  • Getting agreement on introducing new digital governance.

The list goes on.

Knowing what needs to be done is the easy part. Getting people to agree that it needs to be done is hard. Indeed, it is so hard that it is a big part of my job. I go into companies and convince management to do what their internal digital team has been saying for years.

How then do I make this happen? Well, in this post I want to share some of the techniques I use. Hopefully, they will help you work with your stakeholders better.

Find Allies

Never pitch an idea alone. If you do, you will almost certainly fail. Instead, find others that share your vision.

You may think that those people don’t exist, but they do. They might not have precisely the same vision or express it in the same way. But they do want the same thing because it would benefit them too.

Let us say you are seeking to get support for improving the user experience. In that case look for those who would benefit from an improved experience.

For example, marketing would be happier because a better user experience will likely increase word of mouth recommendations. That would improve the number a leads, a metric that marketing teams are often measured on.

Equally the customer support staff would be happy because it would reduce their support load. In other words, more satisfied customers mean fewer complaints.

Those people might not know the term user experience or even understand the concept, but they will still benefit from it.

Encourage Collaboration

Next, try to involve others in shaping your vision. I know that can be hard as it can mean the solution might not be what you intended. However, the more you involve people in shaping the answer, the more invested they are in it.

That is important because if they have been involved in creating the solution, they are less likely to reject it and more likely to defend it to others.

By involving people in the creation of the proposal they are less likely to reject it.

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I see designers making this mistake all the time. They produce a design in isolation and then present it to the client. But because the client hasn’t been involved in creating it, they feel happy to pick it apart.

Collaboration is particularly important in design because everybody has a mental image of what the look and feel should be. Because our vision of the design will all be different, when a designer presents a design it will never be what people expect, and people react badly to surprises.

However, by involving them in wireframing, mood boards etc., you start to shape those expectations, so the design is less of a surprise.

Show and Don’t Tell

One thing designers do well is show their ideas rather than talking about them. That is a superb tactic as people get excited by seeing something, rather than by being told.

If the staff at Disney had just told management they wanted $1 billion to renovate the parks to support RDF chips, they would have laughed them out of the door.

Disney created a prototype of their new Magic Band experience to convince the executive to invest $1 billion.

Instead, they built a prototype. The team converted a warehouse into a mini version of a park, and they showed management how magical the experience could be with the addition of this new technology.

Stop writing long reports if you want to win people over. Instead, create something that resonates with them on an emotional level. Something that makes them excited about what you are proposing.

Focus on Selfish Benefits

Talking of exciting people, when you do pitch, focus on the benefits to the audience you are pitching to.

I see user experience professionals making this mistake a lot. They try and win stakeholders over by talking about the benefits to users, but that is usually a lost cause. Even pitching the benefits to the company as a whole is often a losing strategy.

Instead, we need to focus on how our proposal will benefit the specific group of people we are talking to. For example, if we are talking to the head of marketing, we might talk about how our proposal will increase the number of word of mouth recommendations. However, if we are talking to a finance person, we could focus on cost savings.

Divide and Conquer

The problem with targeting people’s selfish motivations is that often we are pitching to groups of people. That makes it impossible to tailor our message to individuals.

The solution to this problem is to divide and conquer. Ideally avoid group meetings entirely. When everybody is in a room discussing your proposal, it is easy to lose control, and you can even have one detractor convincing others to reject the idea.

By meeting with people individually, you end up in the position of power because you are the only person with all the feedback. You can then pick and choose which elements of the input to act upon and highlight.

Of course, that is not always possible. Where a group meeting cannot be avoided, try to meet with all of the critical attendees beforehand. That allows you to tailor your message and win them over before they even step into the room. That way you will go into the meeting with allies, and hopefully, the meeting itself will just be a formality.

Preempt Predictable Objections

One thing to bear in mind when you are in group presentations is to preempt predictable objections. In other words, if you know somebody is going to have a problem with something, don’t wait for them to raise it. Instead, talk about it yourself and give your counter-argument. Hoping they won’t mention it is a bad idea.

The reason you should preempt objections is to do with group dynamics. When somebody challenges your idea, they are putting a stake in the ground. They are saying that they think your idea is terrible.

If at this point you present a compelling counter-argument you may still find the person who challenged you unwilling to change their position. That is because they would have to admit they were wrong and would lose face. People find this especially hard if they are senior to you in the organisation.

Once a senior stakeholder has expressed an objection it is hard to get them to change their position.

Stock Photos from Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

However, if you preempt their objection before they say anything, they have the freedom to listen to your point of view and shift their own position without losing face in front of their colleagues.

Seek to Understand Underlying Objections

Of course, no matter what approach you adopt you will always encounter objections. When you do, be careful not to take them at face value.

People do not always say what they mean. For example, somebody might block a proposal because of a completely unrelated reason like they are in a power struggle with your boss. The objection they throw up is merely a smokescreen for their real motivation.

However, a more common situation is that people are not very good at expressing their objection. For example, a stakeholder might look at a proposed design and say they don’t like the colour. The question is why don’t they want it?

We need to dig deeper when people throw up an objection to find the underlying issue. Is it that they personally don’t like the colour or is it that they are concerned the target audience will react negatively?

If we don’t ask people to unpack their reasoning, we are never going to be able to identify and address the underlying problem. We will be left guessing which colour they will find acceptable!

Dealing with Risk

Finally, I cannot finish this article without talking about risk. Most proposals involve some form of risk, generally in the expenditure of time or money. Unfortunately, people are very risk-averse. It is easier and safer to stick with the status quo.

There are two ways we can address this general reluctance to embrace risk.

First, we can reduce the perceived risk my asking stakeholders only to take the next step. For example, we can ask people to commit to a prototype to establish viability, rather than the full project. Alternatively, we could suggest rolling out a proposal to a segment of your audience.

You will often find stakeholders resistant to anything more than the next step towards your long term vision and that is okay.

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By breaking the level of commitment into smaller steps, it becomes more palatable, and once people take one or two steps, they are unlikely to back out.

The other option is to make the risk of inactivity appear higher than approving your proposal. You must emphasise the cost of inaction. For example, if stakeholders do not sign off on your plan it might impact sales, cause the project to slip or increase costs.

There Is No Magic Solution

Unsurprisingly no magic solution will overcome all barriers to project approval. Even the techniques outlined in this post will take considerable work to implement.

Winning over stakeholders is hard work. It can feel like herding cats. But there is no point in getting frustrated. It is the reality of any human endeavour that people need to work together, and people will never blindly accept the suggestions of somebody else.

We need to prove our ideas have value and we need to become experts in navigating the choppy water of internal politics.

Best of luck, and if you ever need a guide you know where to find me.