I held my first set of stakeholder interviews because the project manager had sold them to the client and scheduled them in. I wasn’t sure what I was going to get out of it, and in a project with very limited amounts of time at hand, I viewed it as a bit of a waste of time. I thought, most of the people involved had already been present during previous meetings. What could yet another chat with them possibly uncover that would help the project? Sure enough, I should be proven very wrong very soon. Since then, I have come to LOVE this exercise and have come to think that stakeholder interviews should always be a part of any immersion phase.
Based on the time you have available, the people you get to talk to and the questions you ask, they can help with many aspects of your project. On a basic level, they are crucial for three things:
They help build a connection with the stakeholders you are interviewing and get them (and make them feel) involved. Every stakeholder is a part of the project, and you will need their help sooner or later. May it be to mobilise others for a workshop, to provide you with data, or to be a champion of the project in their organisation. You can never have too many people on board with the ongoing effort.
Reversely, listening to the frustrations, needs and hopes of the people whose business you are about to change can give you a massive kick. You are probably in this business because you want to change things for the better for and with those people. They are part of the reason you are here and hearing about their hopes first hand gives me personally always a deep sense of … slap the table … let’s do it!
- Inspiration / Insight
They provide you with insights that would be hard to obtain otherwise. What are your constraints and limitations? What are the real problems at every level of the enterprise? Who can help with what? What does everyone hope to achieve? Why are you doing this project in the first place?
Tips to for your preparation
Stakeholder interviews don’t require an awful lot of preparation, but you’ll want to hold them very early on in the project. Before going into a stakeholder interview, be clear on who you are going to talk to (ideally you cover every department that touches the domain of your project), what their responsibilities are, and what you want to learn from them. Based on these factors, you then prepare your question catalogue.
To give the conversation some structure, I split it into sections. If you have to get through a number of interviews on the same day, it helps to put strict time limits on each, and also plan for breaks in between. Your agenda could look like this:
- Introduction (1 min)
Introduce yourself and why you are here. Make it clear that the conversation will be treated confidentially and that there are no right or wrong answers.
- About your interview partner (13 min)
Let them explain in their words what it is they do, what and who they are responsible for. Aim to get a sense for what their motivations and anxieties are.
- About the project (13 min)
This is where you can learn about practical aspects of the project, understand what your interview partner wants to get out of it, how they feel about it, but also what relevant dynamics look like and what might be possible blockers to the project.
- Follow-ups and wrap up (3 min)
Here they can help you figure out where to go next. Ask open ended questions you can’t anticipate an answer to (I talk about ‘unknown unknowns’).
A few powerful questions
Personally, I think you can treat your question catalogue more as a loose framework rather than a rigid list of bullet points you rattle through. After all, this is all about your interview partners. If they start to talk about something you didn’t anticipate, it is probably because it is important to them. Listen, ask follow-up questions, and when you really feel they get off topic, bring your next question. Here are some examples of questions that have brought me great insights before:
- What does success look like for you and more team?
Most people will seek to improve whatever they are measured by. Ask for those metrics and you will better understand the motivations of your interview partner, and if you can have a positive impact on them, you’ll have another champion in your corner.
- Who’s interests might interfere with yours?
Especially when working with large organisations, internal politics can doom a project. Make yourself aware of any problems that might arise from this.
- In your words, what are the problems we should be trying to solve?
Often, your interview partners might simply recite the brief that was sent around the company. However, their view might be a very different one. Try to get a feel for what they really think.
- What would your dream outcome for this project be?
Get a sense of their expectations and see if it matches with what everyone else is saying. If there are strong differences, it might be time to get everyone around a table again and make clear what you are collectively setting out to achieve.
- What would be a reason why we would not be able to get this outcome?
This one is another question that will help you find out what barriers you might hit along the way. Everyone can think of something, so (especially) if they say they can’t, follow up and ask for ‘at least one thing’.
- If we would do this project 100 years in the future, what would your ideal solution look like then?
I love this question for the variety of imaginative responses I get. It really is the first step towards an ideation/inspiration session with the aim of looking at the situation at hand whilst removing any constraints, and goes a long way towards finding out what they really want to work towards.
- If you and you alone had full control over the project, what would you do differently?
Putting your interviewees in a mindset of absolute power is another way of learning about potential problems and objectives. Recently, a stakeholder told me straight off the bat: “If I ruled the world? I would not work with (Company X).” What a bombshell. This lead to a whole new conversation around the relationship between the client and their contracted Company X.
- Who else should we talk to?
This is a simple, but very important question that will help you make sure that you’ve got all your bases covered. You don’t want to complete a project only to find that you’ve entirely neglected a critical part of the business.
After the interviews
Collect all your notes and keep them within your team. Your interview partners will assume that what was said was private and it should remain that way. For further use in the project, you can create a simple list of bullet points of anonymised findings and use them as inspiration during further stages of your project (for example when building personas).
What is your experience with stakeholder interviews? What questions work for you? Was this advice useful? Please share your thoughts in the comments. And don’t forget share this article — it helps others find it. Thank you for reading!