As product people, we rely on the stakeholders to successfully progress our product. But effective stakeholder management can be challenging. It can feel like herding cats with every stakeholder going off in a different direction pursuing her or his individual goal. This article offers practical tips to help you succeed in aligning the stakeholders, involving them in the right way, and securing their support for important product decisions.
Lead the Stakeholders—Don’t Please, Don’t Dictate
As the person in charge of the product, your aspiration should be to lead the stakeholders in order to create value together and achieve product success. In reality, however, some product people either aim to please the stakeholders by saying yes to their requests or by brokering compromises. Others do everything they can to make the stakeholders agree to their ideas and plans. But neither of these two approaches is desirable.
The first one carries the risk of being a feature broker and offering a product that has a weak value proposition, gives rise to a poor user experience, and consists of a loose collection of features. The second approach fails to leverage the knowledge and expertise of the stakeholders. What’s more, it makes it unlikely that the stakeholders will fully support the product decisions and that they will follow them through.
Effective stakeholder management starts by embracing the right attitude: See the stakeholders as equal partners; take an interest in their perspective, ideas, concerns, and underlying needs; build trustful connections with the individuals; and encourage the stakeholders to work together. But do not accept inappropriate behaviour and do not allow people to treat you like a project manager, team lead, or personal assistant. The following tips will help you with this.
Focus on the Key Stakeholders
A stakeholder is anyone who has a stake in your product, who is affected by it, or who shows an interest in the offering. While this definition includes users and customers, I use the term in this article to refer to the internal business stakeholders. For example, these stakeholders are likely to include representatives from marketing, sales, support, and finance for a commercial product.
To focus your stakeholder management effort, identify your key stakeholders—those individuals with whom you want to establish a trustful connection and collaborate on a regular basis. This is particularly helpful when you are faced with a large group of stakeholders, which is not uncommon in bigger companies. A handy stakeholder analysis tool is the power-interest grid developed by Ackermann and Eden.
As its name suggests, the grid analyses the stakeholders by taking into account their power and interest; it assumes that people take a low or high interest in your product and have low or high power. This results in four stakeholder groups: players, subjects, context setters, and crowd, as the picture below shows.
The players are your key stakeholders: These are the individuals whose trust you should earn, who you should closely collaborate with, who you should involve in important product decisions. This avoids the risk that the stakeholder management work becomes overwhelming and consumes too much of your time. For guidance on how to interact with the other stakeholder groups, please see my article “Getting Stakeholder Engagement Right”.
As the person in charge of the product, you lack transactional power: You cannot tell the stakeholders what to do, you cannot assign tasks to the individuals, and you are typically not in a position to offer a bonus, pay raise, or other incentives. At the same time, you rely on their work and support to progress the product, for instance, to market and sell it. How can you then guide the individuals and ensure that everyone moves together in the same direction?
The answer is by building trust. Here is why: As you lack transactional power, you must influence the stakeholders and encourage them to follow your lead. To do so, you have to earn the individuals’ trust. To put it differently, if the stakeholders don’t trust you, they won’t follow you and they won’t support your ideas and suggestions.
The following techniques will help you with earning the stakeholders’ trust:
- Empathise: Take a warm-hearted interest in the stakeholders and try to understand their perspectives, ideas, concerns, interests, and needs—no matter how likeable and agreeable you find the individuals and their views.
- Practice active listening: Make an effort to attentively listen to the stakeholders and cultivate an open mind.
- Speak and act with integrity: Say what you believe is true, be willing to admit mistakes, and walk your own talk.
- Get to know people and, for example, have lunch or coffee together, be it in the same room or online.
- Involve people in product decisions but don’t make the mistake of trying to please them.
- Increase your product management expertise.
Form a Stakeholder Community
Building trust with the stakeholders and effectively collaborating with the individuals is hard when the stakeholder group is changeable, when people come and go, for instance, when a new sales rep is assigned to your product every few months. I therefore recommend that you form a stable group of stakeholders and develop it into a stakeholder community where the individuals work together on a continued basis and learn to trust, respect, and support each other.
To build such a stakeholder community, try the following techniques, which I discuss in more detail in my book How to Lead in Product Management:
- Bring people together and have joint workshops instead of holding separate conversations with the individual stakeholders, see also the section below.
- Establish clear roles and responsibilities. If people aren’t clear on what is expected of them and who is doing what, confusion arises, and collaboration becomes more difficult.
- Collaboratively set goals, for example, user and business goals on the product strategy and product goals on the product roadmap.
- Improve the collaboration within the stakeholder group and address issues, for instance, by holding stakeholder retrospectives.
- Ask the Scrum Master to help you build a stakeholder community.
Engage the Stakeholders Early and Regularly
I’m a big fan of involving the key stakeholders early and often. This starts by inviting them to a kick-of workshop for a brand-new product or a major product update and asking them to contribute to the product discovery and strategy validation work.
It continues with collaboratively creating a product roadmap and having regular joint product strategy workshops, once per quarter as a rule of thumb, where the product strategy and roadmap are reviewed and adapted. Additionally, ask the players to attend the sprint review meetings at least once per month so that the individuals see how the product progresses and are able to share their ideas and concerns.
In other words, involve the key stakeholders in product discovery and product development work. This allows you to benefit from their expertise, it ensures that everyone is on the same page, and it encourages shared ownership: When developed collaboratively, the product strategy and product roadmap are no longer your plans that people are meant to follow. Instead, they are collectively owned, and everyone involved feels responsible for them.
Note that collaboration means constructively engaging with one another and achieving some form of consensus—not splitting the difference or agreeing on the smallest common denominator, neither of which is a recipe for achieving product success.
Joint workshops, and collaboration in general, become easier and more enjoyable once people have started to trust and respect each other, and the stakeholder group has evolved into a community. The same is true for making product decisions together with the stakeholders, which I discuss next.
Involve the Stakeholders in Important Product Decisions
The most amazing product strategy and the best product roadmap are worthless if the stakeholders don’t support them. But how do you secure people’s buy-in and maximise the chances that the individuals follow the strategy and roadmap? My answer is by involving them in making the appropriate decisions.
When it comes to decision-making, you have two main choices: First, you can make a decision and then try to sell it to the stakeholders. This can be a lengthy iterative process that requires quite a bit of to-and-fro, negotiation, and possibly persuasion. Your second option is to bring the stakeholders together—be it in the same room or a video call—and decide collaboratively. This option takes advantage of the group’s collective knowledge, ensures that everyone has the same understanding, allows the individual stakeholders to be aware of the other people’s perspectives and interests, and typically results in stronger support for the decision, which makes it more likely that the individuals will stick to it and see it through.
To take advantage of collaborative decision-making and effectively involve the stakeholders in important product decisions, try the following techniques:
- Employ a dedicated facilitator who ensures that everyone feels safe to speak her or his mind, that everybody is heard, and that nobody dominates. This mitigates the risk that the HIPPO, the highest paid person’s opinion, wins. You may want to ask your Scrum Master to facilitate the decision-making process, assuming that the individual has the right skills.
- Foster a collaborative mindset and agree on ground rules: Lead by example and attentively listen to people’s ideas while cultivating an open mind.
- Choose a decision rule so that everyone understands who decides and when and how a decision is made. Example decisions rules are consent, unanimity, and product person decides after discussion.
- Encourage people to come up with diverging ideas and create a shared understanding of their underlying interests and needs before you try to find a solution that everyone can agree with.
- Don’t shy away from making tough decisions and declining suggestions and requests after you have attentively listened to the requester and empathised with the individual.
You can find more collaborative decision-making tips in my book How to Lead in Product Management.
Hold People Accountable and Don’t Tolerate Inappropriate Behaviour
It’s great to lead the stakeholder by being collaborative and involving them in important product decisions. But this also means holding people accountable for meeting their agreements. If, for example, the marketer has failed to create the marketing collateral required for the upcoming release, then don’t ignore the issue but address it in the right way. Talk to the individual, empathise with the person, and find out what happened. But do not accept that a stakeholder intentionally acts against a joint decision or a common goal.
Similarly, don’t allow individuals to use a personal conversation with you to make requests, like trying to add a new feature. When this happens, kindly but firmly ask people to attend the appropriate meeting and to share their request with the other stakeholders. This creates transparency, fosters joint ownership, and avoids the impression that you might favour certain individuals.
Finally, don’t put up with inappropriate communication behaviour, like blaming others, bending the truth, or hogging the conversation. Ask people to always treat each other with respect, attentively listen to one another, and refrain from using harsh and false speech. Remember that dealing with people issues is part and parcel of managing a product and that learning to constructively address disagreements and conflict is an important leadership skill.