It’s hard enough for creatives to get along. So what happens when you start clashing with the people who are running—and approving—your project?
You funding gets pulled.
Your project gets taken away.
Or worse: It completely fails.
Your reputation, and the reputation of your company, is in tatters.
While there are many variables that go into whether a project flies or dies, the relationships with your stakeholders are among the most important. I’ve personally been a part of projects where the work is stellar—but an insult here and there leads them to crash and burn.
And in the end, it isn’t just you, your stakeholders, or the company that suffers from poor relationships: it’s the end users and customers, too.
Thankfully, there are several ways you can make sure that doesn’t happen.
It’s inevitable, and often necessary, for creatives and stakeholders to clash. Each side needs a champion.
It shouldn’t need to be said, but a creative’s relationship with a stakeholder—both within and outside the context of a project—forms a huge part of whether that project succeeds. And personality differences are a major factor.
Unfortunately, personality differences between creatives and their stakeholders are often underestimated as a contributing factor to whether projects sink or swim. And yes, both sides can be guilty. But as a creative, I’m speaking to my own here: You may think your work alone will get you over the line, but it won’t. These aren’t just people in suits ensuring your project is funded. Their opinions matter.
Here are some of the things I’ve actually seen, in person, derail stakeholder relationships during a project that was otherwise hitting the mark:
- Chronic lateness, including to meetings where the project-funders were left wondering where the creatives were
- Creatives who fully admit to being ignorant of what the project is about, who it’s for, and why they’re on the team in the first place
- Waiting until the last few meetings to raise objections to how business was being done from the very beginning of a six-month project
- Personally insulting the major stakeholders
They seem crazy, right? Many stakeholders may think your work can overshadow everything else. But that isn’t realistic—or fair. So it pays to understand how to foster goodwill and bring your stakeholders along on the journey.
Related: Dear client, we need to talk
Speak the same language
As a creative, you sing a certain song: One that’s about design, beauty, aesthetics, and purpose. Stakeholders typically sing another: One about growth, budgets, restraint, and clarity.
These two songs don’t often harmonize. But as a creative, it’s not your responsibility to make sure everyone comes to you. Instead, you need to start practicing how to speak the language of other professions.
“As a creative, you sing a certain song: One that’s about design, beauty, aesthetics, and purpose.”
As Jonathan Courtney so clearly explains his article, “The Golden Age of UX is Over,” the most valuable creatives are those who can articulate problems. Stakeholders are just people with problems, and once they realize you understand those problems, like growth targets or KPIs, they’re going to be more willing to listen to what you have to say.
Once you understand their needs, you can reframe your design decisions in a way that helps achieve them. And it pays to keep repeating those goals with phrases like, “I understand your target is to reach X units. I think our design helps us do this, by…”, etc.
And this isn’t just related to stakeholders or those in management. Understanding how your developers, your data team, or even your legal administrators speak goes a long way in understanding problems, finding new ways to fix them, and, most importantly, getting people on your side.
Stop seeing stakeholders as barriers. Understand that they’re just people speaking a different language—then learn a few words. It’ll go a long way in getting your agenda over the line.
“Understanding how your developers, your data team, or even your legal administrators speak goes a long way in understanding problems.”
Give reasoning for every decision
Back when I covered the global financial crisis as a business journalist, my editor would often run little drills to keep me sharp. One day he took a story of mine and pointed out several words he had circled, asking, “Why did you use these words and not others?”
I didn’t have an answer.
As a creative, you should always be prepared to give a reason for your decisions. Remember, stakeholders usually don’t have your context. Seeing a bunch of random design or copy decisions thrown at them without any reasoning is going to leave them confused, and more liable to come back with subjective (infuriating) rejections such as, “I don’t like it.”
Don’t have a reason for your design? Then “I don’t like it” is going to pass as a fair objection.
Instead, prepare yourself with statistics and user research; then be willing to answer every single question about why you did what. This way, your stakeholder is armed with the facts—and you have rebuttals. The stronger your reasons, the less likely your work will be torn down.
“Don’t have a reason for your design? Then “I don’t like it” is going to pass as a fair objection.”
Show the journey (give context)
It’s crazy how many creatives will go in front of a stakeholder and present a design with no context.
Be vulnerable. You’ve been on a journey of discovery, learning things along the way. Why wouldn’t you want to share those things with the people in charge of steering your project?
Make them empathize with your failures and enjoy your successes. The more you do, the more you’ll make them feel as though you’re on a journey together. This will make everyone more relaxed and give you leeway to suggest more provocative options.
Again, it comes down to context: The more you provide, the easier it’ll be to get your suggestions over the line.
Hold your tongue
Do you have a problem with someone in the room? Most people do. But here’s the thing: pointing that out at the time, in the middle of a meeting, isn’t going to do you any good.
Keep things professional and objective. Don’t comment on anyone’s personal life, point out flaws, or insult someone’s bad habits. (Yes, these things happen.)
And if someone does that to you? You come back with, “I think it’s best if we focus on the project right now.” Every single time. You be the adult in the room, and your presentations—and suggestions—will hold more sway.
Get super organized
Creative people have a reputation for being a little loose with organization, to put it lightly. Not holding a calendar, leaving documentation all over the place, and losing meeting notes are unfortunately common.
Here’s the thing: You shouldn’t give stakeholders any reason to doubt you. So when it comes to organization, make sure you:
- Get to meetings early
- Always understand what the meeting is for, and if not, ask
- Keep relevant notes
- Refer back to past meetings (with notes!) if a disagreement comes up
- Document every decision, and every reason for every decision
The more you appear to have it all together, the more your stakeholders are going to respect you. Then it becomes more about the work, and less about the inability to have a good working relationship.
As the Harvard Business Review points out, colleagues need to “look with admiration at how you do your work, how you behave, and how you treat others.” Go the extra mile.
“The more you appear to have it all together, the more your stakeholders are going to respect you.”
Remember: Decisions are made outside of meeting rooms
Designers—and anyone, really—can fall into the trap of thinking that decisions are made inside a meeting room. At a designated time, at a designated place. Getting your agenda across the line means preparing not only yourself, but your stakeholders as well. And that means exposing them to the reality of your project as regularly as possible.
“While there are many variables that go into whether a project flies or dies, the relationships with your stakeholders are among the most important.”
Does that mean catching up one-on-one once a week? Sure, you could. But it also means inviting them into the design process and showing them what things are really like. Respect them enough to give them a heads-up when something drastic might be coming down the pipeline. Share insights from user testing as they happen, rather than at a meeting.
As a designer, your journey gets affected by day-to-day events, meetings, and comments. Give your stakeholders a glimpse of that, and show them what it takes to really get these projects off the ground.
Once you do, you might find that your working relationship doesn’t just succeed—it will flourish.