There’s a conflict between stakeholders raging. Emails are flying and tempers are fraying. Maybe they can’t agree on what requirements should say, or on what solution to implement, or on the project schedule.
Whatever the problem is, you have a big mess on your hands. What do you do?
This kind of situation shows why “soft skills” like negotiation and diplomacy are so important for a Business Analyst. You will often encounter situations where you are expected to broker a solution between warring parties.
Here are six ways to help you do that.
1) Listen, don’t speak.
Sometimes it’s best to just be quiet. One of the things most likely to escalate a conflict is having a stakeholder feel like nobody is listening. When a stakeholder is talking with you as the Business Analyst, they may feel like trying to convince you that they are right. Just listen to what they have to say.
Then show them you understand and have heard them loud and clear. A helpful tactic is to “reflect” the content of what they said back to them, which shows them that you “get it.” You could say: “Let me make sure I understand what you’re saying. You said [insert what they said, in your own words.].” You will often get a calmer stakeholder because you have communicated that you understand 100% of the point they are trying to make. Sometimes that’s enough to start a dialogue about resolving the conflict.
2) Provide a forum for resolution of the conflict.
Sometimes the way to manage conflicts between stakeholders is to let them “duke it out” (respectfully, of course.) You can call a meeting of stakeholders together to allow everyone an opportunity to air their views.
During such a meeting you will play the role of facilitator, and perhaps help smooth ruffled feathers. Keeping the discussion civil is key. Again, make sure everyone has an opportunity to feel heard.
You should also make sure the meeting continues being productive and driving towards a resolution. If people seem stuck, you can employ one of the other strategies listed here to see if you can get to the solution. Else, people may need to separate for a while and think about the issues before getting back together to resolve the problem.
3) Look for the win-win.
When things seem stuck at an impasse, it’s time to put your knowledge of the business domain to work. Try to find a way out of the conflict that provides each of the stakeholders at least some of what they are looking for. The more the better.
Get each of the stakeholders to prioritize the most important things they want to get out of a resolution to the conflict. Find the areas of agreement and see if you can cobble together a compromise.
A win-win situation is likely to have some “loss-loss” for the arguing stakeholders too. Neither party is going to get everything they wanted. Where possible, explain how the upsides of a win-win approach beat the downsides, or how the downsides can be managed or mitigated.
4) Bend the laws of reality.
Sometimes, what’s needed is to change one of the “laws of reality.” (Hey, we already knew that we BA’s are superheroes, right?)
Every organization has a series of “laws” that govern how it does business. They generally revolve around time and schedule, money, and availability of staff. Conflicts between stakeholders can arise when you are unable to meet conflicting needs while still following these “laws” of the organization.
If you can, look for ways to change these “laws of reality” in some way to help resolve the problem. If the conflict is whether IT can re-juggle its developer commitments to meet a business demand for a new function it needs right now, can the organization extend the project end date so IT can meet both commitments? If the conflict is over dueling features on a user interface that can’t both get built at the same time, can there be two projects instead of one to meet the needs of both sides? If the conflict is over which feature to pay for when the business can only pay for one, is it possible to get the money to pay for both?
These “laws” will NOT be easy to change, if it’s possible at all. Either you or the affected stakeholders may need to appeal to upper management to approve the proposed change. But it may be worth a shot, depending on your organization.
5) Advocate but don’t choose sides.
Whatever you do, don’t choose sides or appear to do so. Doing so will cause one of your stakeholders to feel betrayed, and you definitely don’t want that. It could permanently affect your relationship with the individual.
If you have a point of view or a proposed way forward, by all means feel free to advocate for that view. But you should always make clear that the final decision is for the stakeholders to make, and your job is to help bring things to closure.
6) Get help.
If all else fails and people are still yelling at each other, it’s time to escalate. Eventually this becomes a job for someone who has the power to compel a decision one way or the other. That is unlikely to be you, but someone higher up the management chain.
You should only do this as a last resort. Consider conflicts between stakeholders as a way of honing your negotiating skills and becoming a master of conflict resolution. But no matter how experienced you are, sometimes you just need intervention to break the logjam.
When that happens, try to keep the escalation as quick and painless as possible. When management gets brought in to resolve conflicts between stakeholders, they may ask you to explain what’s going on. Staying as neutral as possible makes it likelier to keep stakeholders friendly to you. When the ruling comes down from above, close the subject and move on.