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Creative Leadership: When Stakeholders become Stickholders

Visiting developers around the world often reminds me of the giant fustercluck that can result when you lack a stakeholder that is also the stickholder.

Visiting developers around the world often reminds me of why an agreed way of working is one of the most critical understandings a team can have. More specifically I was reminded of the giant fustercluck that can result when you lack a stakeholder that is also the stickholder. You know what I mean.

One of the most common issues that creative teams suffer from is the lack of a single stakeholder, aka a principle product owner, who owns the product vision and can give specific guidance when a team reaches an impasse or runs astray. A clear product owner can step in to clarify misunderstandings and ensure a certain degree of alignment between team members while they pursue their goal. This can keep the team more focused, on track and ensures a higher likelihood of success when contrasting final results against the expected acceptance criteria. In short they provide the structure and framework that helps give creative work a context.


Stickholding Stakeholders

Two stickholding stakeholders parley.

Basically think of the product owner as the principle stakeholder in the group. And that stakeholder has a big stick. If you go out of alignment too far, you get wacked with the stick. This brings you back into alignment. Hopefully. 

More often than not the mere presence of a strong stakeholder can create problems…

  • The tendency to speak directly to the product owner instead of the rest of the team can develop. This means that knowledge and ideas are not being shared between team members and instead are pitched directly without meaningful filtering or discussion.
  • A strong product owner can breed complacency if they offer too much direction or feedback during the discussion process. The impression that the product owner will just end up telling the team what to do in the end regardless of discussion can bring with it a sense of apathy towards team meetings.
  • In the absence of a product owner, the team can become somewhat paralyzed due to a sudden vacuum of influence and no meaningful discussion or progress is made until the product owner returns.
  • The stakeholder can push their own agenda, shepherding the team towards a preconceived goal that is defeats the purpose of team collaboration. Typically this results in a strong general, weak lieutenants leadership situation.

The absence of a strong stakeholder has its own pitfalls…

  • Direction or instruction can be non-existent, meaning the team can spend a tremendous amount of time just trying to figure out what to do and why they are doing it.
  • A dominant personality can emerge take control of the team and pursuing their goal. This can be a saving grace, or a total disaster.
  • Team members can get entrenched in opinions on how best to proceed and intellectual trench warfare ensues. Each point is painfully slow and articulation of every rational and point is made to take that next trench. I like to call this the road to nowhere.
  • Team members give up. They slowly become apathetic and retreat more and more from having an opinion to the point where having them in the room is not only useless, but counterproductive due to the poisonous effects of apathy and its tendency to spread quickly to other team members.

Clearly the middle ground is preferable to the all too common extremes listed above. But how do you encourage a team to collaborate and cooperate with each other while maintaining alignment towards a clear and distinctive goal? 

A moderate principle stakeholder is exceptionally rare, knowing when to act as a mentor and coach alongside the team, while at other times giving strong guidance and clear direction. Perhaps the most difficult part is knowing when to back off and let the team find their own way knowing there are going to be painful learning experiences along the way. Though exceptionally difficult, this type of stakeholder arguably has the best chance to produce stronger team members, and better results  through a combination of encouraging a level of autonomy, providing guidance towards a purpose and inspiring mastery in the form of superior accomplishment.

Regardless of the stakeholder you are dealing with, they had better be a stickholder. I mean…no one screws with a Wizard right?

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