Stop hoping for the best. Preempt potential problems.

Paul Boag

Let’s be honest, we often know the objections we will hear from stakeholders before they say them. Yet instead of getting ahead of the issues we hope they don’t raise them. That is a recipe for disaster.

I sat down after presenting my new design and avoided eye contact with a stakeholder called Dave. I just knew he was going to have a problem with the design.

In earlier discussions Dave had gone on about how users didn't like to scroll. Unfortunately I had just presented a design that required scrolling. I just hoped like hell he would be so impressed with the design that he would not bring it up. Unsurprisingly it was the first comment made and set the tone for the rest of the discussion.

We have all experienced similar things. Whether over a design, information architecture, copy or indeed any aspect of our job. Whether an external supplier or a member of an in-house team, we often know what people will say. We know even before they open their mouth. Yet we hope they won't bring it up.

That is the wrong approach. If you want to get approval for your work, you need to preempt these predictable issues head on. Not hope nobody mentions them. The reason why is simple psychology.

We hate to lose face

As soon as Dave expressed his problem with scrolling he had taken a position from which he could not back down. He would lose face in front of his colleagues if he did. Nobody likes that.

With a convincing enough argument I might manage to win over others in the room. But I would do nothing more than isolate Dave. He would go away humiliated and angry. People don't like to admit they are wrong, let alone have it proved to them.

But what if I was the one to bring up the issue of scrolling before Dave mentioned it? What if I recognised that it might be a concern to some and explained in detail my reasoning? Well now there is a choice. Dave could either speak up or hold his tongue. If I am convincing enough he has the option to say nothing and so he would not lose face.

People don't like to be obvious

It is also important to remember that people don't like to ask a stupid or predictable question. If I raise the issue myself I turn his ‘insightful’ criticism of my design into stating the obvious. He no longer looks clever, instead looking predictable. This increases the chance of him staying silent.

So never avoid predictable issues in the hopes they don't get raised. Always deal with them before somebody else brings them up.

Turn adversaries into allies

Of course it would have been even better if I had managed to deal with the issue in my initial conversation with Dave. But once again I had mishandled things. I had allowed the conversation to turn into a confrontation. He had made his comments about scrolling and I immediately told him why he was wrong. He became defensive and I found myself in an argument.

What I should have done is ask why he believed that. I should have taken his concerns seriously and asked lots of questions. I should have listened. I should have gently expressed my concerns and asked his thoughts about how they could be overcome.

This may not have stopped him raising the issue in the meeting. But it would have at the least given me more ammo. I could have said in my presentation that Dave raised a good point about scrolling in a previous discussion. That we discussed it in-depth and he provided a lot of food for thought. But that after consideration I felt the benefits of scrolling out weighed the drawbacks. I could then have explained why.

Do you see what I did there? I built Dave up in the eyes of the group and positioned him as an ally. I made it clear I listened to him and valued his thoughts. But I also positioned him as a key contributor in the design we are looking at. It is now a lot harder for him to pull it apart. After all he helped shape it.

Learn those soft skills

I work with a lot of organisations full of people like Dave. They are not bad people. They just want you to listen to them and include them. Yet too often we shut them out or dismiss them as ill-informed.

The problem is we spend our time learning the latest CSS framework or JavaScript library. We fail to take time to hone these kinds of soft skills. That has to change, otherwise we will find that people frustrate our efforts. That or you end up having to hire somebody like me to do the persuading for you!