The Art of the “Tactful Challenge”

15th June 2021

Change initiatives can be politically charged places at times.  It is usual to be working with a range of different stakeholders, all of whom have subtly (or sometimes wildly) different perspectives on how things ought to work.  Sometimes it will appear that there is agreement on the surface, but conflict is bubbling away undetected.  You might have even experienced this yourself, perhaps achieving ‘consensus’ in a meeting one day, only to find that everyone acts as if the meeting never happened the next! 

Unfortunately, in some cases consensus can be an illusion. It only appears that people are agreeing because nobody has got beneath a surface level conversation. This is not a criticism of any of the stakeholders involved—they’ll typically be different specialists and executives who all speak subtly different languages.  Few people would argue that we shouldn’t “decommission unsupported legacy IT systems”, however they may have a very different view on what should be implemented next.  There might be varying views over what “unsupported legacy IT” actually means.  In fact, it could be argued that the statement on its own doesn’t really mean very much at all. It is practically a blank canvas that different stakeholders will paint their own meaning on! 

Avoid ‘Sleepwalking’: Bring on The Constructive Challenge 

In these sorts of situations, if there isn’t any immediate conflict, often the easiest thing to do is to keep going and keep quiet.  It can be very tempting to do this, particularly when there are extremely pressing deadlines to be met, or where there are commercial interests involved (for example, when delivering services to a client).  Yet, if we sense there is conflict, misunderstanding or miscommunication bubbling away beneath the surface it’s crucial that we step up.  If we do not, we are just delaying the inevitable.  If people aren’t on the same page they will find out eventually…. However, they’ll find out later, when something is delivered and it isn’t what at least some of them expected.  Agile practices ensure that these types of conversations happen sooner, but if the entire direction of travel is misaligned that will require quite some correction! 

Sometimes, it might just be a hunch—a general feeling—that something isn’t right.  As practitioners, we often develop an innate ability to pick up on the subtle cues that something is amiss.  At this early stage it’s usually quite possible to tactfully interject and check that people are really seeing eye to eye: 

“Just before we move on, I wanted to check that we’re all on the same page, and also that I fully understand.  Natasha, you mentioned that ‘Customers’ need to be able to access the online service, and Ravi, you mentioned that ‘Customers’ need to be able to submit invoices.  Are we talking about the same type of ‘Customer’ here, as they sound quite different?” 

In this example we might find that Natasha was referring to retail customers (people who buy things).  Ravi was referring to suppliers; however as his team deals with supplier management, he considers them to be his ‘customer’.  A short clarification could solve a lot of heartbreak! 

It’s Not Just The Small Stuff 

That example was fairly nuanced and related to functionality.  It’s even more important to ensure people’s expectations are aligned with the overall objectives (the purpose) of a programme of work.  Asking people, individually, “What are the outcomes you’re aiming to achieve?” and “What would success look like for you?” can be enlightening.  There will typically be a large amount of overlap but also some differences.  These differences, particular areas of conflict, create the opportunity for us to foster a conversation between the parties early, before we go too far down a road that might lead to dissatisfaction for some (or many) of them. 

Sometimes challenging people can be scary.  I think we’ve all found that from time to time, particularly if the person is very senior, or very set in their ways.  Yet that, in itself, isn’t a reason not to do it.  It highlights the need to do so tactfully, and doing so with rapport.  It wouldn’t be a good idea to meet someone for the first time, and immediately go into full on “dissent” mode!  Spending time getting to truly understand their perspective, and finding a way to do so which doesn’t imply criticism is important.   

There will be times when asking questions and tactfully challenging will lead to enthusiastic exchanges of opinion.  Providing these are professional and well facilitated, and provided a conclusion is reached, this isn’t necessarily an issue.  After all, this enables an understanding to be gained of what people really think.  If someone emphatically believes something, and they believe it so strongly they’ll make an animated point in a meeting, surely it’s worth listening to them?  After all, they will think and believe that whether or not we hear them… but if we hear them we can hopefully foster an agreement that everyone can buy into. 

So all in all, tactfully challenging isn’t always comfortable and it isn’t always easy. But it pays dividends in the long run! 

by Adrian Reed, Business Analysis Expert