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Toddler taming vs stakeholder management

Is people-wrangling part of your daily duties? Do you spend your life herding people down the path you need them to take? If your answer is yes, then chances are you’re either involved in project management or you are a parent.

Parenting isn't easy. As the father of two small children, I’ve been on a steep learning curve. My patience has been (and still is) tested. It has forced me to look for new ways of responding to difficult situations. I was recently introduced to the concept of giving children controlled choices. It gives them a sense of control and makes them more agreeable. I immediately recognised it as a stakeholder management technique. This opened my mind to a whole new set of techniques to use on my children. 

As these things do, the learning has worked both ways. It also helped me understand and improve my approach to stakeholder management. It brought into focus the professional techniques that I had been using without realising. These are some tips and tricks I’ve learned to use to better manage my children, my stakeholders and my patience.

1. Framing and positioning

The framing effect is a well known cognitive bias that influences decision making. The way you describe and position options greatly influence the choice someone makes.
An example is the news that a deadline is going to be missed. This can be framed as a choice between pushing back the deadline, or reducing scope. This decision can then be greatly influenced by where the emphasis is placed. Be it on the consequences of missing the deadline, or the benefits of completing the full scope.

In the family home, this often appears when selling the benefits of eating vegetables. “Do you want to grow up to have big muscles like your Dad? Do you know what gives you muscles? Broccoli!”. It also commonly surfaces when parents turn chores into games, such as “who can pick up the most pieces of Lego?"

2. Controlled choices

Controlled choices are a way of giving a perception of freedom, whilst controlling the outcome. Someone's decision can be influenced by controlling the choice of options.

Even more so by making one of those options a less desirable one. When dealing with that missed deadline, there might be a third option - such as increasing the size of the team. Omitting this from the options presented gives a strong nudge towards the first two. Further, if the deadline is unmovable, this is a strong nudge towards the option of reducing scope.

For children, dinner options can be presented as a controlled choice. This helps to get them to choose something they wouldn’t otherwise eat, such as vegetables. For instance, being told you’re eating carrots for dinner could likely be met with resistance. Yet, when given a choice of carrots or brussels sprouts, carrots become the good option. 

It’s also worth noting that for children, this isn’t only a matter of perception of freedom. Learning to make decisions is an important part of their development. Starting with small inconsequential choices is a first simple step.

A word of caution when presenting options: never suggest an option you’re not willing to actually provide, even if you don’t think they will choose it. This can backfire and lead to more confusion and arguments. 

Colleagues standing at a wall discussing story cards

3. Expectation management

No one likes being surprised and told they have to do something right now. You will usually get push-back even if it’s something they don’t mind doing, just not straight away.

Giving stakeholders a heads-up allows them to prepare for the potential outcome. This could be the need to complete a task, or the risks of a decision. Prior warning allows for workload planning or risk mitigation actions.

The same applies to children. Being told something is about to happen gives them a chance to prepare for it. Even if it’s simply finishing the current activity. In my home, bathtimes are usually preceded by the warning “bathtime is in five minutes. Finish up your game and be ready to go upstairs.” 

4. Early engagement

Get stakeholders involved early in the planning and preparation for a project. This means their input can be taken onboard and incorporated into the project. This sets the tone for continued collaboration throughout the project. Which in turn, makes stakeholders far more likely to buy into and like the end result. 

Children have an innate curiosity and desire to learn. They love being involved in what their parents are doing. Often they demand it, regardless of whether it’s helpful or not. Cooking is a great example of where this can be harnessed for the power of good. There are benefits to involving them in the cooking process, even if it’s simply peeling carrots. It teaches them an important life skill. It makes them far more likely to eat what they helped create rather than turn their noses up at it. And depending on their age, they may actually be genuinely helpful.

5. Seeking input

It’s easy to undervalue or disregard stakeholder input. Do so at your own risk. They are stakeholders for a reason - they have a stake in the outcome. This usually means they have valuable contributions to make. 

Actively seeking stakeholder input shows that you want to listen. More than that, you should value it and act upon it. Chances are you might learn something from listening to them. 

The same applies for toddlers. They should have a chance to control their day and/or destiny. As with controlled choices, it’s important to give them a chance to control their life. And their ideas can also be worth listening to. I recently asked my son what he wanted to do that day. Without skipping a beat, he said he wanted to fly a kite. That was the start of a great day spent first making a kite, then going to the park to fly it. 

These types of shared experiences build relationships. Active and open communication allowed us to both contribute to a great outcome. And an appreciation of each other.

It took the taming out of toddler in the same way you can take managing out of stakeholders. Instead, turning both into collaborators.

Disclaimer: The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Thoughtworks.

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