A quick blog about a big subject.
I was asked today what I thought the optimal number of stakeholders on a moderately sized software development would be. My opinion is somewhere around 7. 7 is often considered the ‘magic number’ as it is about as far as the brain remembers (y’know, the old cognitive psychology bit) – hence why for years it was bad practice to have more than 7 menus on a desktop application; as I’m typing this I’m looking at Firefox with 7 menus on it (File, Edit… you know what they are).
(In fact as I remember, the golden rule was ‘7 plus or minus 2’. Some folk will remember up to 9, others down to 5. But 7 is a nice central number.)
Anyway I can see that there is some kind of analogy with this when it comes to stakeholders. Not only in meetings, but groups you’d meet for requirements gathering as well. Say for instance you’re gathering requirements for a social networking application or new mapping application. Within your room, beyond a certain number of people, you’re going to find people who don’t contribute, or who don’t feel they’re getting heard. Less than this number, and you’re not getting a rounded view of a number of partners. Plus, of course, there’s the inter-relationships between stakeholders, which, as you bring stakeholders together, brings in another dynamic that’s exponentially more complex as you increase the number of participants.
What of Agile? Well as development becomes increasingly Agile – especially so in the current climate where customers are demanding to see progress earlier – it’s more important than ever that there is direct involvement between development team members and customers. After all, they’re all stakeholders together. Making sure that this relationship is fluid is important, so it’s necessary that there aren’t too many people involved to stifle and over-analyse. Otherwise, not only are relationships too complex, but the project is too big.
A little earlier today I posted this very question on Twitter. I got a reply back very quickly saying ‘as few as possible’. Whilst this does make sense, isn’t there a risk that you don’t actually speak to enough people to influence the outcome?
So for all this, ‘7’ seems to be another magic number – stakeholders, be they developers, deliverers, purse-string holders, or users – it seems the right sort of combination. If you go too low, you don’t have enough different opinion. If you have too many, it probably means that your project is too big anyway and needs some kind of decomposing.