The sliding scale of client, stakeholder and management engagement

It’s a beautiful colour, grey, and as soon as you put it into black and white it gets lost.
~ Ian Thorpe

I’ve been thinking about client engagement a lot lately: how much engagement should you aim for when working for someone? Whether that someone be a client, a sponsor of your project, or your boss.

I’ve come to realize that engagement isn’t black and white, engaged or not. It’s a sliding scale, and like most things in life, the sweet spot is somewhere in the middle, not at the outer ends.

On the far right you have a client who is too engaged, to the point of being a micro-manager and a hindrance on your progress. This isn’t ideal, but you can manage the micro-management and it still is possible to get a good deal done in this circumstance by using the high level of engagement to your advantage (to clear roadblocks for example).

On the far left is what I consider to be the most dangerous spot: a client who isn’t engaged whatsoever. The benefit is that you will have freedom to do whatever you want, the obvious downside is you’re inevitably going to fail because you won’t know what your client actually wants, and it’ll eventually unravel that you haven’t delivered. Whilst it’s easy to become complacent in this situation, it should be avoided at all costs: raise the red flag early and often, and if you can’t engage your client, get a new client, or leave!

I also believe this same scale applies to child development. As the father of two young boys I spend a fair amount of my leisure time in playgrounds, where I observe other parenting styles and interactions. On the far right of this scale fit the parents who hold their kids (or make them wear helmets) as they try to climb the jungle gym. On the far left are the parents who read the paper or play with their latest iPhone 5, oblivious to the amazing physical and mental development they are missing meters away. In the sweet spot are those amazing parents whose children are confident to independently learn, whilst knowing their parents are always there if they need help or something goes wrong.


If you can aim for somewhere in the middle of my scale, where your client is engaged enough to know broadly what they want, but not engaged too much for them to tell you what to do and how to do it, that’s the sweet spot: that’s where you should be.

What are your thoughts? Do you like one particular end or like living in the grey spots like me?

Author: Alister Scott

Alister is an Excellence Wrangler for Automattic.

3 thoughts on “The sliding scale of client, stakeholder and management engagement”

  1. Nice mate.
    I don’t like one particular end, but I do like that the sweet spot has to move.

    Like children, clients are all different. I think I’m the latter mentioned parent who lets my daughter navigate the jungle gym by herself, only stepping in when called upon or when required (my daughter does not have much fear!). However, other parents will have a completely different sweet spot. I’ve also seen the parents who ‘roll there kids up in bubble wrap’ and thought to myself that seems odd… only to find out that the child had some sort of disorder that ‘required’ it.

    Thinking about a client engagement… are you there purely for capacity reasons? Or perhaps capability reasons? Or even a mixture of both. This and many other factors will drive where that sweet spot lies. :0)


    1. Absolutely: the type of engagement dictates where your level of engagement should be. Capacity engagements (what we call delivery) would tend to be more on the right, capability (coaching, enablement) more to the left, but again, rules of thumb and every one is different.


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