A team I had been coaching held a sprint review to show what they had achieved and to get feedback from stakeholders. Among these were managers, other teams, enterprise architects, and other interested colleagues.

In the past sprint they had built and realized the automation of part of the Continuous Delivery pipeline. This was quite a big achievement for the team. The organization had been struggling for quite some time to get this working, and the team had realized this in a couple of sprints!

Team - "Anyone has questions or wants to know more?"
Stakeholder - "Thanks for the demo. How does the shown solution deal with 'X'?"

The team replied with a straightforward answer to this relatively simple question.

Stakeholder - "I have more questions related to the presented solution and concerns on corporate level, but this is probably not the good time to go into details."

What just happened and how did the team respond?

First, let me describe how the dialogue continued.

Team - "Let's make time now because it is important. What do you have on your mind?"
Stakeholder - "On corporate level solution Y is defined to deal with the company's concern related to Z compliance. I am concerned with how your solution will deal with this. Please elaborate on this."
[Everybody in the organization knows that Z compliance has been a hot topic during the past year.]

Team - "We have thought of several alternatives to deal with this issue. One of these is to have a coupling with another system that will provide the compliance. Also we see possibilities in altering the ....."
Stakeholder - "The other system has issues coping with this and is not suited for what you want it to do. What are your plans for dealing with this?"

The team replied with more details after which the stakeholder asked even more detailed questions....

How dit the team get itself out of this situation?

After a couple of questions and answers the team responded with "Look, the organisation has been struggling to find a working solution for quite some time now and has't succeeded. Therefor, we are trying a new and different approach. Since this is new we don't have all the answers yet. Next steps will deal with your concerns."

Team - "Thanks for your feedback and see you all at the next demo!"

Killing a good idea

In the above dialogue between the team and one stakeholder during the sprint review the stakeholder kept asking details questions about specific aspects of the solution. He also related these to well-known corporate issues of which the importance was very clear to everyone. Thereby, consciously or unconsciously, intimidating the audience whether the approach chosen by the team is a good one and perhaps should be abandoned.

This could be especially dangerous if not appropriately dealt with. For instance, managers at first being supportive of the (good) idea might turn against the approach, even though the idea is a good one.

Dealing with these and other difficult questions

In his book 'Buy-in - saving your good idea from getting shot down' John Kotter describes 4 basic types of attack:

  1. Fear mongering
  2. Death by delay
  3. Confusion
  4. Ridicule

Attacks can be one of these four or any combination of these. The above attack is an example of a combination of 'Fear mongering' (relating to the fear that important organisational concerns are not properly addressed) and 'Confusion' (asking about many details that are not yet worked out).

In addition, Kotter describes 24 basic attacks. The attack as described above is an example of attack no. 6.

Don't worry. No need to remember all 24 responses; they all follow a very simple strategy that can be applied:

Step 1: Invite the stakeholder(s) to ask their questions,

Step 2: Respect the person asking the question by taking his point seriously,

Step 3: Respond in a reasonable and concise way.

The team did well by inviting the stakeholder to come forward with his questions. This is good marketing to the rest of the stakeholders: this shows the team believes in the idea (their solution) and is confident to respond to any (critical) question.

Second, the team responded in a respectful way taking the question serious as a valid concern. The team did so by responding in a concise and reasonable way.

As Kotter explains, it is not about convincing that one critical  stakeholder, but it's about not losing the rest of the stakeholders!


"Buy-in - saving your good idea from getting shot down" - John P. Kotter & Lorne A. Whitehead, https://hbr.org/product/buy-in-saving-your-good-idea-from-getting-shot-dow/an/12703-HBK-ENG

"24 attacks & responses" - John P. Kotter & Lorne Whitehead, http://nextgen.kotterinternational.com/our-principles/buy-in/24-attacks-and-24-responses