Working as an architect includes engaging with stakeholders who will often make decisions based on your opinion and advise. What to do if they avoid making decisions? Why some people easily accept your suggestions but others don't?
"Mind the architect" is a series of short articles about becoming an architect and how building the right mindset helps in that role.
(Yeah, I know, it may sound funny if you check the date of the previous post. I could blame the pandemic and a lot of other things, but everything would be just an excuse. It's been a while since the previous post, but I hope from now on my blog activity will be more frequent.)
From time to time you will be running a meeting to share outputs of your work with a group of stakeholders. If you finish research, proof of concept or implementation spike, there will be a bunch of data to process. Your task is to aggregate the information and present it in a way that allows stakeholders to decide what is the best option to follow. You are an advisor, an expert who is putting light on the important stuff to consider. An opinion maker whose voice is heard.
Sometimes you will get the expected response, a clear decision which option is the most appealing and favoured. Stakeholders will give you a green light allowing you to move further with your work.
But sometimes, there's a difficult silence on the call and people don't engage as you expected. The way they dodge the decision depends, to some extent, on the cultural aspect. But whether it is a polite "I'm not sure about it" or a direct "No", the result is the same - lack of decision you wished to get.
You know your summary of outputs is clear, thorough and complete. The narrative is consistent and follows best practices. So what's the problem? Did you do anything wrong?
It depends on the type of stakeholders. Some of them will greatly appreciate the way you summarised outputs, will take the data and do their work to decide what's the best approach going further. Let's call them Doers, just to distinguish them from the second type I want to focus on.
But some of them will react with this uncomfortable silence. They have all the data, but for an unknown reason they hesitate to tell you what they want. If asked directly, they propose an extra meeting, a time for thoughts, basically they avoid making immediate decisions.
My experience shows that these guys might be Executives and you need to approach them in a specific way. Generally speaking, these are the people who are engaged in numerous similar discussions. Multi-tasking is their natural state. They make a ton of decisions and have to constantly switch context. Stopping for a while and doing the "manual work" with your outputs is a luxury they can't afford.
To give you an example: we've been recently working on developer environments in the AWS cloud. Each engineer should have an individual set of two CMS instances, a web server and two containerised Java applications at their disposal. My colleague Maciej and the team he leads did an excellent job researching the possible options on how we could do it. Without going into much detail, it was about:
- using the right combination of EC2 and ECS services
- running one or multiple VMs
- choosing the right VM types and sizes
- analysing configuration and provisioning tools
He has identified technical decision drivers and constraints, drawn several architecture diagrams, collected pros & cons... almost anything you can imagine. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then let me just show you a glimpse of the Miro board used for the analysis. You won't be able to read the details, but its size should give you a good impression of the effort put into the task.
But while we were going through this lovely board with stakeholders, their reaction was pretty mild. Almost no comments expressing if they liked it or not. Someone could have an impression that they didn't care or didn't want to be engaged at all. But we knew that wasn't the case and we had prepared for that.
Our stakeholders were mostly Executives from various programme and company levels. Overseeing multiple streams of work, engaged in discussions from a wide spectrum of topics. They could, theoretically, do the analysis and make a decision, but their time is pricy. Therefore, we had to do a little bit more.
They needed a person who will formulate a valid proposition and will recommend what to do next. That means we had to take the outputs, compare pros and cons, and to present the best choice based on our experience, knowledge and skills. Their job was to utilize their unique executive stakeholder point of view. They verified the proposition against constraints which are normally beyond our awareness horizon. I imagine their thought process looked like:
"That suggestion sounds nice. It makes sense, is consistent and solid. Does it impose any risk to my business? No. Is it cost-efficient? Yes. Does it move us towards our strategic goals? Yes. OK, I will give it a green light."
In fact, during the meeting we've been asked about simplicity, cost effectiveness and if the work can be done incrementally. Confirming three times gave us the decision!
This real-world case explains what such stakeholders would like to see from you. It's fine when you are a good researcher, but much better if you can be a trusted expert. Executives starve for experts who will step up, do the job independently and let them focus on their higher level goals.
This might be boring to hear, but knowing your stakeholders is important. As this is a very commonly shared best practice, I will push that slightly further and say: try to understand what does their day-to-day work look like. Are they involved in multiple topics, do they have to make many decisions every day? Do they engage across multiple teams or departments? The more their work looks like this, the more likely they will be making decisions in the "executive mode". If you know that, silence on a call won't be a problem for you.
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Featured image by Freepik, opens in a new window