I find that one of the most challenging parts of the consulting process involves getting a large group of decision makers to agree on project scope. Not only can the process be time consuming, but there are often politics at play behind the scene (or right in the scene, for that matter!) that can make facilitating workshops and arriving at consensus next to impossible for consultants. Recently I worked on a project with a large organization to redesign its intranet. Our team was working with a twelve-member stakeholder group that represented the various lines of business within the organization, and who together comprised our "sign-off" authority.

Knowing from experience that decisions-by-committee can be a challenge, we successfully used some tools and facilitation techniques to focus the group and quickly and relatively easily get buy-in for our first deliverable: a list of prioritized features for the first phase of the project. After conducting audience interviews and observations with nearly 50 people, we scrubbed our notes and came up with a list of about 130 potential features. We had a tight budget and timeline, and we had to be efficient.

With smaller stakeholder groups, we often go through and prioritize the potential features together in a workshop. On this project, with so many features and stakeholders, we knew this would not be a good use of everyone's time, so we took this approach:

  • Grouped the features / tasks into high-level categories (i.e. Corporate Information, Manager Information, Knowledge Centre, etc)
  • Listed the features in a groovy spreadsheet (features down the left, stakeholders across the top)
  • Distributed the spreadsheet to each stakeholder and had them "rate" importance of the feature according to their line of business / area of the company
  • Assigned a numeric score to the rankings and then averaged the score across stakeholders
  • Assigned a "threshold" score to determine at-a-glance whether features were in- or out-of-scope or borderline. We even used conditional formatting to apply a "traffic light" metaphor according to the score; in-scope features were assigned a green icon, borderline features a yellow icon, and out-of-scope features a red icon
  • Conducted a workshop with the stakeholder group to focus on "borderline" scoring features and determine whether they should be included or excluded from scope
  • Prioritized the feature list according to feature scores combined with workshop feedback

This process allowed us to clearly, quickly, and easily determine which features ranked as high and low priorities, and use our workshop time to hone in on those that were not so clear. Stakeholders used the workshop to validate the rankings and argue for or against features. In the end, we arrived at the feature list at the end of a 90-minute session.

What I found most successful about this experience was not just the end result (a good solid feature set), but a process that was perceived as engaging, efficient, neutral, and fair. Every stakeholder had the opportunity to participate and every vote counted. While features were initially vetted by score, there was a human component to the decision making, whereby high-value features that "scored" low could still be included in scope if a convincing enough argument could be made during the workshop. A little science and a little art makes for great buy-in!