October 23, 2019 ~ 4 min read

Capturing ideas from stakeholders

Weekly TipsSpeaking

In yesterday's post I talked about using a 'to-address list' to maintain focus in meetings.

This is a list you use to capture anything that might take you off topic and out of scope, in order to keep the meeting moving along.

I want to try another name for this list - Reader Lee F. wrote back with a response that included the term 'parking lot' for this type of list, which I like a lot. It's a place we can put ideas where they won't be lost, but where they'll stay parked until we're ready to take them on.

Today I want to talk about another important use case for this type of 'parking lot' - capturing ideas from stakeholders.

You've probably run into this - the 'ideas person' on your team or in your stakeholder list who is always bubbling over with feedback, ideas, and things to do.

It can be hard to work sometimes with a person like this - if you just say 'yes' to every idea you'll never be able to finish or ship any projects.

On the other hand, if you say 'no' all the time you'll come off as a curmudgeon, and often provoke frustration.

The solution? Similar to keeping a meeting on track, you'll want to capture all of these ideas for future evaluation and iteration.

Interpersonal validation

When you capture ideas, one of the most important things you can do is to make the stakeholder feel heard. You don't want them to think this is another way to say no... you're simply keeping yourself moving and focused without losing their input.

So when they come up with the next great idea, you'll want to respond something like "Hey, thanks for bringing that up! That's a really good point. I think it's probably beyond the scope of our current project/iteration/sprint but I want to make sure we don't lose it, so let's write it down in our parking lot."

This works better if you've already discussed this approach with the stakeholder in question, and best if you have also agreed on goals and priorities for the project you're working on.

Agreeing on goals and priorities

The resistance you may run into when you first try this approach is an argument about whether the idea really is in scope. The best way to avoid this is to have crystal-clear agreement on scope, or at least an agreement on what your goals and priorities are.

For example, if you have as an immediate goal to finish a version 1 of a project so that you can show it to beta customers, when your stakeholder raises an issue you can use this to drive the decision of whether to do it now or put it in the parking lot:

"Hey, great idea that we should rework the login flow. I think that would take several days of work - given our goal of getting version 1 to our beta customers as soon as possible, do you think this should block sending it to them or can we put it in the parking lot to do in the next iteration?"

This works because it removes the interpersonal conflict of "you want me to do this and I don't want to right now" and instead makes it a joint decision/evaluation of priorities. You're simply informing the stakeholder of the trade-offs, reminding them of priorities, and letting them decide.

How 'parking lots' reduce conflict

The reasons this type of 'parking lot' approach works so well is two-fold.

The first is somewhat obvious: it allows you to maintain focus on a current project, meeting, or sprint, deferring "new work" to a future time after the current project is complete.

The second is slightly less obvious: It lets you reduce conflict by never having a debate about the validity of any one idea in isolation from others.

In the heat of the moment, when an idea comes up, it is at it's most exciting to the person coming up with it, and it is being viewed relatively in isolation from all the other possibilities you could be working on.

At that moment is the worst time to discuss whether or not it's the right thing to do.

By capturing it in a parking lot, you enable yourself and all stakeholders to evaluate it later in context with all other possibilities, without the emotional weight of having just come up with it.

And that will not only create better decisions, but result in less conflict and hard feeling within the team.

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Kevin Ball

Hi, I'm Kevin Ball (alias KBall). I'm a software engineer turned trainer and coach focused on communication and leadership skills. You can follow me on Twitter, or check out my software-focused work at Zendev.com.