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Communication Matters

I recently took my 3-year-old son to visit the optician.  Well, more accurately I took him to two different opticians.  No, I wasn’t looking for a second opinion on the diagnosis, I was looking for a better approach and better communication. The differences were staggering and, in the end, have influenced where my son and I will be repeat customers.  This experience provides a useful analogy for the way we all too often think about stakeholder communication on projects.

The first optician we visited was very efficient at booking the appointment and upon arrival gave my son a balloon. After all, what child doesn’t like balloons? We were then sent to the waiting area. We sat for just a few moments before being called into a dimly lit room with lots of machines for checking eye health. First off, the optician wanted my son to look into these big machines. It did not matter how much we tried to persuade him, my son was having none of it. After this unsuccessful first step, we were shown to another room where the optician went through a lengthy form filling exercise on the computer, during which my son and I got very bored. By the time the optician finally tried to look at my son’s eyes, the latter was a distressed, bored and restless 3-year-old running around the room. Needless to say, it was not a successful visit, and the optician was unable to examine my son’s eyes.

The second optician was completely different. They would not book an appointment straight away.  Instead, they recommended that we take him to the store several times over the coming weeks and let him play with the glasses that were on display.  They took the time to show him the “magic wand” that the optician uses to look into eyes, gave him a children’s book all about visiting the optician and, most importantly, welcomed him back the same way each time we visited. In less than two weeks my son was asking to see the opticians, and so we made the appointment, and everything progressed very smoothly.  The groundwork that had been laid in the earlier visits paid off with my son reasonably happy to try on different pairs of glasses until we found a pair that fitted and suited him.

While the first optician was very efficient, did not keep us waiting and had all the right equipment and technology to do the job, they failed.  Not because of their skills and tools but because they focused so much on procedures and did not take into account that a 3-year-old child on their first visit to an optician would need to be handled differently from most adult customers.  The second optician realised this and made sure they communicated and engaged with my son in a way which met his needs.

Now I’m not suggesting that we handle our project stakeholders as children, no matter how tempting that may be at times.  What we could do is to take the time to consider their needs and the most suitable way to engage with them.  The Agile Manifesto states that we should value “individuals and interactions over processes and tools”.  In doing this, and taking a little more time and attention over their communication and engagement, the second optician dramatically affected our experience of visiting the optician. My son needed more than just a token gesture of a balloon.

Stakeholder communication does not always get the attention it deserves in the hustle and bustle of a busy project yet stakeholder communication is important. They are often the customers or users of the project’s outputs.  In the end, they have a say in whether the project continues or if its outputs are used effectively.  So take a moment and think; are you really considering your stakeholders’ needs, or are you simply working with an efficient process?