screen-shot-2016-12-13-at-4-25-05-pm Every project’s success is based on a solid foundation, as well as buy-in from key stakeholders. Unfortunately, 75 percent of executives and professionals in a recent survey admitted that their projects are either always or usually “doomed right from the start.” If you dig into the causes, you’ll often see that the business is out of sync with the project requirements. Why is that? One key culprit: a lack of input from stakeholders. “It’s not only important to understand the business needs, but [also] what success looks like,” explained Madhuri Kolhatkar, director of applications user experience, advanced research and tools at Oracle. “Through great execution, stakeholder interviews can be a source of valuable insights, as well as potential misalignments.” Since project mishaps can hurt your career, here are some general guidelines for conducting effective stakeholder interviews.

Don’t Make Assumptions

Jumping to a solution is a common interviewer mistake that leads to costly rework and even project failure, according to Adriana Beal, principal consultant for Beal Projects and author of “Tested Stakeholder Interviewing Methods for Business Analysts.” You want to study the company, the industry and stakeholders’ backgrounds. After that, prepare for each interview by developing a slate of 10 to 15 relevant questions that can be comfortably asked during the allotted time period. “However, don’t create a long, detailed script,” Beal noted. “Your questions should serve as a conversation guide, not a bible. Be prepared to go off-script and dig into the details by asking numerous follow-up questions.” Use an interrogative word to frame questions (such as ‘who,’ ‘what,’ ‘how’ and especially ‘why’), because understanding the rationale behind a specific business need may lead to different solutions. In addition, asking leading questions may take you down the wrong path or put stakeholders on the defensive. Focus on culture, business challenges and goals, not features. Keep an open mind and strive to listen 80 percent of the time, advised Emily Muth, a consultant with Excella Consulting. “Task one member of your team with taking notes so the others can focus on listening and asking follow-up questions,” Muth said. “Debrief right after the session and consolidate your notes to create follow-up questions for the next round of interviews.”

Conduct Multiple Interviews with Stakeholders

Stakeholder interviews aren’t a ‘one and done’ proposition. Each stakeholder may have their own requirements, vision, and priorities, so you’ll need to conduct multiple interviews with a diverse group comprised of veterans, novices, subject matter experts, introverts, and yes, even the loud complainers. An initial interview is just an entry point, Kolhatkar emphasized, as you want stakeholders to be actively involved throughout the project; you want their support. Also, defining the business requirements is only one objective of a successful interview. “You need to determine if the success criteria matches to create a cohesive vision and project plan,” Kolhatkar noted. “And it usually takes multiple interviews with multiple people to figure that out.” You may need to study the customer’s business model to figure out who else you need to talk to, she added. And don’t overlook end-users; you need to interview them, too. An interview not only provides a platform for establishing trust, credibility and rapport, but also provides a window into a group’s dynamics and the power plays—if you pay attention to body language and stakeholder interactions. That’s why experienced interviewers prefer face-to-face meetings or video chats instead of telephone conversations or conference calls. “Don’t address the lack of a shared vision or disparate objectives in the moment,” Muth said. Summarize your findings during follow-up meetings. The idea here is not to foster disagreement but to gain a deeper understanding of the issues. Build consensus by presenting an overview of the findings gleaned through the interviewing process. “The ultimate goal is to deliver a product or solution that meets the needs of the business,” Muth added. “Stakeholder interviews provide an in-depth understanding of the issues that lead to project success.”