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Lack of Engagement

Oh, the discomfort of having a genuine need (i.e. not one that you have raised), access to budget, but a lack of engagement from whoever you are trying to help.

I will describe the two parties in this scenario as the Provider and Customer. The Customer is not necessarily the party paying the invoice, they are the party who will describe the need and sign off on the delivery. This distinction is useful when considering both internal and external Customers, who differ as follows:

  • External Customers see you, or your company, as a service Provider.
  • Internal Customers are members of the same organisation as the Provider. They often come from different departments.

Each of these can have different engagement behaviours.


So how does this lack of engagement appear? The following are some of the more common types, and cause(s).

Appears not to be engaged. The Customer is engaged but doesn’t appear to be. They thought that describing their need at a high level was sufficient. Little did they realise that they would also need to provide:

  • Detailed Requirements or Product Ownership input to shape the deliverable.
  • User Acceptance Testing resources to write the test cases and run them.
  • Time to answer questions, clear road blocks and provide sponsorship.
  • Etc.

Is actively disengaged. This can arise for a few reasons, it is unusual with an external Customer because they don’t typically contract if this is the case. So, let’s assume that this is an Internal Customer

  • They are being taken on a journey by the Provider that they just don’t want to go on. Despite having described their needs and challenges, for whatever reason they are not interested in moving forward.
  • They have had recent experience with the Provider that was not positive. This has left them with reduced confidence in engaging again. This can be due to a perceived or a real issue, this is irrelevant, as an old CIO of mine used to say ‘perception is reality’

Is unsuccessfully trying to engage. The Customer has their day job to attend to, and despite their best intentions, they simply don’t have the bandwidth to participate as fully even though they went into the engagement with their eyes open and had fully intended to participate. This can be exacerbated during periods of:

  • Monthly reporting
  • Year end reporting
  • Vacation periods


Appears not to be engaged. Okay, this is the easiest issue to proactively avoid.

During contract negotiations, and the project kick off meeting, this is when the Customer can be mentored in what is expected of them. Don’t assume that they have been through a project before. Focus on conveying expectations that include:

  • What does it mean to be a Product Owner (PO)? Typically, this means daily participation with the project team to write stories and prioritize the backlog.
  • How much access to Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) will be needed so that requirements can be fleshed out in a timely manner
  • What is required during User Acceptance Testing (e.g. do you expect them to write the test cases?), how many iterations will there be? Do they have any leave planned?
  • Timely decision making, assuming you don’t have a Product Owner. Decisions can relate to scope variation, removing blockers, etc. and may need input from executives.

Is actively disengaged

Now this is an interesting situation, and you probably won’t get through this without a few scars! Typically, it arises with an Internal Customer who is really not that interested in the need identified, or they lack confidence in you. However, despite their reservations they have been ‘encouraged’ to start the project with you as the Provider. To move forward in this scenario, you have a few options:

  • If it is a confidence issue, and you haven’t had a retrospective, arrange one and make sure it is open, honest and facilitated by someone outside of the previous project. Talking about the past issues and owning them as appropriate is a powerful position to take, it may claw back some lost confidence.
  • Locate someone in the Customer’ team whose life you can make easier by delivering your project. Once you have found them, see if you can deliver a feature upfront that will enable them and prompt them to be an advocate for your project. This follows a change management approach where you are looking for someone that will advocate for you. However, make sure that your Customer doesn’t feel that you are:
    • Going behind their back
    • Sucking up valuable time of one of their team

Is unsuccessfully trying to engage. Let’s assume that you did the right thing and mentored the customer in what was expected of them during the kick off phase. You now however find yourself struggling to get time in stakeholders’ calendars and progress is slowing.

This is tough to deal with, as you can probably see how busy they are, and it is easy to empathize. I suggest that you:

  • Raise the issue. Just because you can see it, doesn’t mean that they can
  • Look at opportunities to co-locate with Customer. If this is the desk next to them, even better, probably a little difficult in the times of COVID though!! Being able to simply ask questions as they arise is much more efficient than scheduling an hour long meeting or filling their inbox
  • Encourage the Customer to delegate. I have worked on projects where the C level Customer was too busy to be effective, despite wanting to. Instead of trying to deal with him, I nurtured a relationship with an administration resource who understood the operational outcome and could more effectively manage the C level exec than I could.
  • Don’t simply empathize with how busy they are and soldier on without their active participation. I have fallen into this trap, only to realise that this is perceived as not effectively managing the stakeholders and it left me with a grumpy Customer

Build it and they will come

Whatever your do, if you have either of these:

  • A lack of confidence that you fully understand the need
  • A Customer who really just doesn’t want you as a Provider

Do not try building it with the hope that they will come!! The chances of success are marginal, you will end being accused of:

  • Not engaging.
  • Not listening when you were told they didn’t need what you have now provided.
  • Wasting money.
  • Etc.

Hopefully this post has helped you the types of disengagement and provided some options for addressing it

Image by NikolayFrolochkin from Pixabay 

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