Structured Interviews and IT Strategy

[This post was originally available on the ‘How to IT Strategy’ Newsletter which is available here and if audio is more your bad you can listen to the companion podcast here (and all good podcast services)]

In this newsletter we’ll discuss techniques to make sure you get the most value out of your time with stakeholders. Stakeholder interviews are an essential source of information to inform your IT strategy and provide rich context about your stakeholders concerns and the organisations culture and prevailing narratives. You should go into stakeholder interviews with 3 objectives:

  1. Learning: set aside your assumptions and prejudices and engage with a ‘beginners mind’ focused on learning as much as you can from the stakeholder in order to inform your IT Strategy
  2. Build Rapport: Actively seek to build a relationship with the stakeholder as an engaged, empathetic peer (in our How to IT Strategy course we’ll touch on some specific techniques to help this, but for now its important to recognise that there are 5 key elements to building rapport that you need to be cognisant in your interviews , Trust, Focus, Empathy, Congruence and Empowerment)
  3. Influencing: Every interaction with a stakeholder is an opportunity to influence and reinforce key messages. e.g. planting seeds early on areas of potential contention or reinforcing key messages e.g. by the time you’ve talked to a particular stakeholder you may already have identified some ideas key strategic themes that you want to test out on the stakeholders

A meeting with a stakeholder is never “just a chat”, it is always a reciprocal 2 way interview. The value you and your stakeholder get out of it is directly related to the effort and thought you put into structuring the interview.

Before the meeting

Before the meeting your stakeholder should already be aware of who you are, what you are doing, why you are doing it etc, ideally from the standard communications you issued during the mobilisation of you strategy creation process.

This should be follow up with tailored comms including:

  • why are we meeting?
  • whats in it for them?
  • what pre-work or thinking will need to be done before the meeting?
  • high level areas that will be covered
  • what will happen after the meeting

Setting your stakeholders expectations before the meeting can help allay concerns and start the meeting in a positive way.

You should go into the interview with a Standard set of questions that can be re-used across your stakeholder engagements. However, you should also do pre-work to come up with a set of tailored questions. Whilst preparation is key, equally its important to give you and your stakeholder freedom to go off on tangents, sometimes these can be the most fruitful parts of a stakeholder interview, you can alway steer back to your questions.

During the meeting

It is important to be cognisant of the types and balance of questions that you ask and engage your active listening skills.

Questions

Open questions can be great to unlock discussions e.g.:

  • Tell me about…?
  • could you describe…?
  • Why do you..?

Avoid both leading and double-headed questions, if you’ve got two questions to ask, ask two questions.

Make sure you ask follow up questions, don’t leave assumption left hanging in the air, make sure you address them for example:

  • You mentioned X, please can you tell me more about this?
  • What do you mean by X?
  • What i think you are saying is…is that correct?

asking Why is an important and potentially incisive tool, but can be counter-productive if used in a sequence (e.g. 5 whys) especially if the stakeholder is cognisant that you are “doing 5 whys” to them.

Non-verbal

Sometimes silence is as powerful as a question, you don’t have to fill gaps in conversation, silence might give your stakeholder the space they need to really think about the question you are asking.

Be cognisant of non-verbal prompts, both yours and your stakeholder’s. sometimes the body language of your stakeholder when answering a question can contain more meaning than the answer they verbalise. Similarly its important to be cognisant of your own body language, simple things like smiling, nodding and mirroring can help reinforce your engagement and empathy.

Notes

Don’t make the mistake of thinking you’ll be able to recall all of the important information that will be divulged during the interview, it is ok to make notes! and in some circumstances stakeholders might be ok with recordings. The key thing is to either set the expectation or ask the question up front, so it is not a surprise. In my experience taking notes is accepted by the majority of stakeholders, recordings however come with a whole load of psychological baggage about being a witness/providing evidence that can risk shutting down a productive conversation.

A key thing to remember when you do take notes is that the notes should not become the focus of the interview, make sure you focus on your body language e.g. maintain as much eye contact as possible, missing a few words on your notes is not as important as your stakeholder feeling like they are being engaged with.

Close

Ending well is as important as the pre-interview work and the actual interview itself. Good closing questions, for when you’ve exhausted yours are:

  • Any questions you would like to ask me?
  • Is there anything else you would like to add?

if you can, replay back some key points that have come out of your discussion, this not only demonstrates that you’ve been paying attention, but also provides the stakeholder with another opportunity to add to their previous points.

Just as you set expectations before the meeting, its important to reset them at the end of the interview, for example reiterate the next steps and your commitment to them e.g. “i’ll provide a write up of our conversation, please review and feedback where i may have mis-interpreted.” Once you’ve set expectations and/or made promises its then crucial you stick to them to continue to build the relationship and trust with the stakeholder.

Summary

In this newsletter we’ve talked about the importance of preparing for stakeholder interviews in a structured way and of the equal importance of the pre-interview, interview and post-interview stages. Successful, structured interviews can be a goldmine of both information for your strategy and and important moment in building relationships with key stakeholders.

Please don’t forget that in addition to subscribing to this newsletter you can also list to the accompanying podcast here and on all major podcast platforms.

If you’d like to learn more about how to create great IT Strategies then please consider signing up for early access to the course at howtoitstrategy.com

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