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A Lesson From Top Of The Pops: Knowing Your Real Stakeholders’ Needs

Over the past few months, I’ve been watching old 1990s episodes of Top of The Pops (ToTP). For anyone who isn’t UK based, or doesn’t remember ToTP, it was a weekly show which featured music artists and bands from the charts. Being on ToTP was seen as a huge indication of success, and at the time it was one of the few places to see chart music on TV. For anyone that liked pop music, it was required viewing.

A man singing and jumping on stage at concert
(Image Credit: ©moodboardww — #35516264)

One of the things that looks really odd, in retrospect, is how the crowd reacts to the music. Generally speaking, they pretty much clap along in a weirdly coordinated, almost robotic, way. It’s really odd seeing people clap and sway along to early 90s indie music in a way that, well, nobody ever would at a gig. If you go and watch an episode from 91 or 92 on YouTube, you’ll see what I mean.

Having watched a documentary about the making of Top of The Pops, I gather that in the early 90s the crowd were pretty much told how to behave. Not only this, some bands and artists that weren’t seen as ‘visual’ enough would be provided with backing dancers who would dance along with them.  Watch these in retrospect and you can see how much the different styles of dancing jars with the music.  It must have been a thoroughly bizarre experience to be in the audience, and in retrospect it’s quite a bizarre thing to watch!

Building For “Them” Not For “Us”

The decision to encourage people to clap and to employ generic dancers could be described as ‘design decisions’. Ultimately, an executive producer (or someone) is presumably responsible for designing the programming and ensuring the output meets its stakeholder needs. Those stakeholders would include the viewers, the live audience and many others (including the needs of the person commissioning the show).

When it comes to viewers and audience members, one possibility here is that at least some of the ToTP executives had very little insight into how people actually reacted when they watched live music, or what people wanted to see when they watch the show, and instead were focusing on ‘doing what they’d always done’. Perhaps the senior people making the design decisions weren’t typical consumers of Blur, Oasis, Aqua or any of the other 90s bands. They probably weren’t packing themselves into some smoke-filled bar in some rainy corner of Portsmouth to listen to the next ‘up and coming band’ on a Friday night.

This got me thinking about business analysis and where definition and design decisions happen. Too often it seems to happen in comfortable conference rooms, miles away from where the service will actually be delivered or the solution will actually be used. Phrases like “oh, that workaround is fine, it’ll only add an extra 60 seconds to the process” might sound completely innocuous when a group is scoffing down donuts trying to wrap-up a meeting before the rush hour traffic. The front-line staff left to deal with a queue of angry customers because the solution delivered is so slow might take a very different view.

A key point here is that it’s easy to fall into the trap of defining and designing what “we” want and what “we” find acceptable rather than finding a balance of our stakeholders’ needs and perspectives.  Now, this is a provocative statement, and of course it is never quite that binary. Yet, the fact remains that it’s very easy to specify features that the people in the comfortable, air-conditioned, coffee-filled conference room “reckon” would be a good idea, rather than actually understanding the needs of those that will use or will be impacted by them.

Engage And Engage Widely

We are probably all familiar with a range of stakeholder identification and engagement techniques. Yet, hand on heart, how many actually get used? In the rush of project initiation, where some enthusiastic and bombastic manager is rushing straight for an assumed solution (without doing any analysis), it’s easy to get caught in the slipstream. Yet it’s crucial for everyone—for our organisations, for its stakeholders, and even for the over-excited manager—that we don’t.

Scouring the stakeholder landscape early and revisiting it regularly is crucial. This should start pre-project. How on earth can a project or product be defined if there is no input from key stakeholders? Yet it happens! This doesn’t mean all stakeholders need to be consulted on everything, of course, but it is important to identify who will be relevant and approximately when they will be engaged.  Ultimately, change is a lot like a jigsaw puzzle. Everyone holds a piece, but nobody can see the whole picture. Hopefully if we gain enough perspectives and enough ‘pieces of the puzzle’, we’ll collaboratively see enough of the picture to make a real difference and avoid unintended consequences.

This conscious and determined effort to engage and understand stakeholders shouldn’t be seen as a luxury or something to be played down or cut. Change is inherently a human endeavour, if you’re doing it without the humans then it’s very likely to fail! Remaining curious, having empathy, and seeking to understand perspectives will lead to a better set of outcomes. Surely that’s better than rushing towards a solution that nobody uses and everybody hates?

What are your views? Please add a comment below, and let’s keep the conversation flowing!

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About the author:

Adrian Reed is Principal Consultant at Blackmetric Business Solutions, an organisation that offers Business Analysis consulting and training solutions. Adrian is a keen advocate of the analysis profession, and is constantly looking for ways of promoting the value that good analysis can bring.

To find out more about the training and consulting services offered at Blackmetric, please visit

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8 thoughts on “A Lesson From Top Of The Pops: Knowing Your Real Stakeholders’ Needs”

  1. Did this article come at the right time, just as I was questioning what am I doing with this project!!! Thank you Adrian, you just revived my perspective on what role we as BA’s play and why and the importance of ‘human’ engagement.

  2. Great article, Adrian! The people affected by a project are the #1 priority, and some mediocre BAs forget this. This article is timeless!

  3. Earlier this year I gave a presentation on this topic, more or less. I would add some strength to your provocative statement: nothing, repeat nothing, beats the experience and thus engagement of really switch sides. When you have acted at the other side of the table, done some shifts in customer service, etcetera, then you have really felt the needs of these stakeholders. Yes, we can imagine how inconvenient it is to copy-paste some identification to another system. But once you have done that numerous time during a days work, with the customer hanging on the line, then you are much more motivated to give that particular requirement priority. Hope you get the point 🙂 And I have noticed through the years, that there are more possibilities to “switch sides” for a while than we think.

    1. Thanks Danny, I completely agree. I think it would be valuable for everyone to spend some time working in a call centre/customer service environment. I learned a lot by doing that, it is probably one of the hardest jobs I’ve ever had!

  4. Thanks Danny. This is an absolutely great read. It is important thar design decisions are made by persons who have a well-rounded knowledge of the organisation, including a knowledge of customer-behavior, having been one themselves. That way, they can make better design decisions.

  5. While I fully agree that design decisions do need to come from the customer/business perspective, I honestly struggle with the concepts of “definition of done” when an outcome meets requirements. I work in an environment of scarcity (public sector in Canada) where we never have enough technical resources. And engineers are often my customers who expect a lot. So it’s often a discussion of trade offs… “if you’d like that much ease in a design, these other requirements have to be cut or wait.” I’m not sure how much of that is constructive feedback or just a rant. But I will say it is very hard to make “the best design choices” is an environment of scarcity.

    However, I do hear that the overall message is how important it is to stay close to our users and understand their business (empathy!!) and how the technology works to meet their needs. That results in strategic partnerships that keep an organization strong.

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