Pixar's Lessons for Stakeholder Management

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Stakeholder management is one of the classic problems in large organizations. Whether managing a large solution program, rolling out a governance program or trying to engage in business transformation, one of the key stumbling blocks is the need to get a wide range of stakeholders on board with what you are trying to achieve. It's also an area where I've seen people struggle the most. It's a stereotype that IT people are uncomfortable engaging with others, but like most stereotypes it has more than just a kernel of truth at its core.

Engaging with stakeholders involves persuasion, which means it verges into horrible, messy, 'salesy' areas. So it's an area that most practitioners can use some help with. Now, you don't have become some slick used-car salesman to do effective stakeholder management – you just have to be able to craft a compelling story. The story can even have a villain (the problem that you're solving) and a hero (whatever's being put in place to solve the problem). The story is all about how the hero defeats the villain, or in our terms, how the solution solves the problem. So with that said, let’s see if a master in the area of storytelling can offer us any insight in this regard – Pixar, the company behind countless hit films.

I'm going to be referencing a fairly well known set of “22 Rules to Phenomenal Storytelling” originally tweeted by Emma Coats, based on her experiences working at Pixar. For the sake of brevity, I won't list them all here since the list is available via Google in pretty much every format imaginable – I'll just pick out the ones that we could use in crafting a story for organizational stakeholders.

“#2: You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be v. different.”

Or, to put it in Enterprise Architecture terms, consider your stakeholders and what their concerns might be. It’s all too easy to get fixated on the message and forget to consider how it might be perceived, by your audience. In some ways it’s nice to know that even professional storytellers have to keep this in mind.

“#3: Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.”

This is an interesting rule, because it seems to contradict rule 7, later on. But it works in the cases when completely stuck for what to say –

“#4: Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.”

I’m going to go out on a limb and assume that you know what an elevator statement is. If you can express your proposition using this structure, you’ve already more than halfway written *your* elevator statement.

“#7: Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.”

True for corporate presentations as well. Interestingly, a recently minted PhD once told me that this was the key to writing your PhD thesis. I always look to have my last slide or paragraph written, at least mentally, before working on how we get there.

“#10: Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.”

Steve Jobs famously liked to quote Picasso’s line – ‘Good artists copy, great artists steal’. Whenever I find a presentation enjoyable or convincing, I make sure to take a few minutes to think about why I had that reaction.

“#14: Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.”

Or to use the favorite phrasing of a former boss – ‘So what? Why do I even care?’

“#20: Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you DO like?”

Or, in our context, a good exercise to train presentation building is to take a train wreck that we’ve experienced, and consider how we could do better. Some might even try doing this to distract themselves while enduring the presentation in question… but I won’t make that suggestion at all to finish this post.