I am a big fan of involving the stakeholders and dev teams in important product decisions. But deciding together can be challenging: The most senior stakeholder might try to dictate the decision, the group might shy away from difficult conversations, or people might get stuck in endless debates. This article shares eight practical tips to help you avoid these pitfalls and harness the full power of collaborative decision-making.
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Be Clear on When to Involve the Stakeholders and Development Teams
You can—and should—make many business-as-usual decisions on your own. Complex and high-impact decisions, however, are best made together with the stakeholders and development teams. There are two reasons for this: First, you usually require people’s expertise to help you tackle complex issues, for instance, to understand technical risks or the impact on the ability to market and sell the product. Second, you need strong support from the stakeholders and dev team members for high-impact decisions in order to ensure that they are effectively followed through. Involving the individuals in the decision-making process show them that you value their input, and it provides them with the opportunity to influence the decision. This, in turn, makes it more likely that they will support and implement the decision.
In practical terms, involve stakeholders and dev teams in decisions that affect the product strategy and the product roadmap—be it that you create the plans or that you make bigger changes to them. Examples of the latter include deciding if you should pivot, address a new market or market segment, retire a product, and if you should replace the product goals or change the dates on a product roadmap. Additionally, include the development team members in product backlog decisions, and always choose sprint goals together.
Bring the Right People Together
Once you’ve established that a decision should be made collaboratively, carefully consider who needs to be involved in the decision-making process to ensure that the right decision is made and that it receives the necessary support. Then invite the right people to a collaborative workshop, no matter if it takes place online or onsite. A joint workshop creates transparency; it allows the individuals to understand each other’s perspectives and interests; and it frees you from having to go forth and back between the individual stakeholders and dev teams until an agreeable proposal has finally been found.
If you are unsure which stakeholders you should involve, then carry out a stakeholder analysis using, for example, Ackermann and Eden’s power-interest grid shown below.
The grid encourages you to divide the stakeholders into four groups, as I explain in more detail in my article Getting Stakeholder Engagement Right. Once you have done this, focus on the players. These are the individuals whose input you need to make the right decision, who help you progress and offer the product, and who are affected by the product and its ability to create value. For a revenue-generating product, this might be someone from marketing, sales, support, and finance.
If you work with several development teams, ask each team to send one or two representatives to the workshop. I find it useful to have UX design, architecture, programming, and testing skills present to make the right decision. And in a scaled environment where you share product ownership, involve the product people who work with you, for example, feature owners.
Use a Dedicated Facilitator
When you bring people together to make a decision, getting the individuals to engage in a constructive conversation can be challenging, as you might have experienced yourself. Some individuals might enjoy sharing their ideas so much that they won’t stop talking. Others might be shy and reluctant to contribute, and senior members might expect that their suggestions are followed by everyone. What’s more, you are usually required to actively contribute to the decision and share your expertise, as the person in charge of the product.
I therefore recommend using a dedicated, skilled facilitator who runs the meeting and facilitates the decision-making process. This might be your Scrum Master, assuming that the role is filled, and that the individual has the skills required. The facilitator should establish ground rules, help people embrace a collaborative mindset, create an environment where people feel safe to speak their minds, encourage everyone to fully participate and prevent individuals from dominating, ensure that an appropriate decision rule has been chosen, and guide everyone through the decision-making process. Having a dedicated facilitator can be especially useful in an online workshop where people may need more encouragement to fully participate and stay engaged.
Lead by Example
Deciding together becomes difficult when people act in self-centered ways and aim to maximise their personal gain, seek to dominate the discussion, or believe that they know best and that their idea must win. What’s needed to develop an inclusive solution and reach a sustainable agreement is a collaborative mindset.
I therefore recommend that you lead by example, embrace a collaborative attitude, and show that you value the ideas and perspectives of the stakeholders and team members. The following three practices will help you with this: First, show a genuine interest in the perspectives and needs of all attendees—no matter how senior or junior they might be. Second, actively listen to the individuals, give everyone your full attention, and appreciate their contributions even if you disagree. Finally, keep an open mind. While it is important that you have your own perspective and ideas, hold them lightly. Cultivate a receptive and curious attitude and be open to what the stakeholders and development team members have to say.
Note that attentive listening and open-mindedness do not imply approval. But they make the other person feel understood and appreciated. What’s more, they are likely to free you from being biased towards your own preconceived ideas and help you take full advantage of the collective wisdom of the group in order to make the best possible decision.
Decide How to Decide
Imagine that you are asking the stakeholders and development team members at the end of a collaborative strategy workshop, “Is everyone OK with changing the needs statement in the product strategy?” Because nobody says anything, you assume that everyone agrees with you. But in reality, people are still thinking about the suggestion. To make things worse, it’s not clear who has the final say on product strategy changes. Is it you, the people present, or possibly the management sponsor?
Choosing a decision rule avoids these issues. Such a rule clearly states who decides and how you can tell that the decision has been made. There are four common decision rules that facilitate group decisions:
- Unanimity: Everyone agrees with the proposed solution and is happy to endorse it.
- Consent: Nobody disapproves and has any meaningful objections.
- Majority and supermajority: More than half of the people are required to agree with a proposed solution. In the case of supermajority, more support is required, such as two-thirds or 75 per cent.
- Product person decides after discussion: Once everybody has been heard and a shared understanding of the different ideas has been established, the person in charge of the product makes the decision.
Note that each rule has its strengths and weaknesses; none is always appropriate. For example, unanimous agreement generates strong support for important product decisions. Achieving it, however, can take a comparatively long time. Contrast this with the rule, product person decides after discussion, which is much quicker to apply. But it may not generate particularly strong buy-in if your decision does not consider the suggestions of the stakeholders and dev team members.
Don’t Rush Important Decisions
While it can be tempting trying to quickly solve an issue and make a decision, it takes time to leverage the collective wisdom of a group and solve a complex or high-impact issue. The steps described below will help you guide a group through the decision-making process and arrive at a decision that everyone can understand and support.
Step 1: Gather Diverse Perspectives
Make sure that everybody clearly understands the issue to be addressed. Then ask people to share their perspectives, come up with ideas, and voice any concerns they might have, for example, by using structured brainstorming. It is essential that everyone can contribute and is being listened to. This makes people feel valued and involved, and it allows you to collect different ideas and perspectives. Resist the temptation to shortcut the process and to prematurely reach agreement at this step. Otherwise, you are likely to end up with a mediocre solution based on familiar options.
Step 2: Build Shared Understanding
Help people understand each other’s views and encourage them to explore the underlying needs and interests. For example, ask the individuals to explain why an idea is important to them or why they feel strongly about a suggestion. What are their motives or concerns? Give the group the time required to develop a shared understanding, and don’t rush this step. If people don’t understand each other sufficiently, then it will be very difficult, if not impossible, to come up with a solution that everybody can accept.
Step 3: Develop an Inclusive Solution
Once the group has established a shared understanding and people know the reasoning and motivation behind the different suggestions, you are ready to develop an inclusive solution. But this does not mean that you should try to please everyone by cobbling together different ideas, nor does it entail brokering a compromise or agreeing on the smallest common denominator. That’s the opposite of what a collaborative decision-making process should achieve. A truly inclusive solution addresses the needs of everyone present, move the product in the right direction, and results in a sustainable agreement—a decision that people will follow through.
Use Data to Make Decisions
While it is very helpful to have relevant experience and a solid understanding of the market, don’t make the mistake to blindly trust your gut feeling or to follow the opinion of the most senior stakeholder. Use data instead to make the decision. If you lack the relevant empirical evidence, consider pausing the decision-making process and collecting the data required.
Say that you are thinking of addressing a new market segment and you are discussing the idea in a collaborative strategy workshop. Some of the attendees, including yourself, have experience in offering products to this segment and are in favour of developing a new product variant for this target group. But if you haven’t done any specific product discovery work and lack data to support this view, I recommend pausing the decision-making process and carrying out the necessary discovery work, for example, interviewing prospective users, and building a throw-away prototype to test your idea. Otherwise, you’ll risk deciding based on experience and beliefs—which may or may not result in the right course of action.
Secure As Much Buy-in As Possible but Do Not Allow Stakeholders to Dictate Decisions
When involving stakeholders and development teams in a decision, it’s natural to try to generate as much buy-in as possible. While I can’t emphasise enough how important it is to attentively listen to the individuals and appreciate their perspectives, ideas, and concerns, you should not make the mistake of trying to please people or to allow individuals to dominate the decision-making process.
Instead, search for a decision that maximises the value your product creates and at the same time, is inclusive and attracts as much support as possible. But do not agree to a weak compromise. Deciding together does not mean that everybody gets their way or is necessarily super happy with every decision. It means leveraging people’s expertise, ideas, and concerns, creating a shared understanding, and finding an appropriate solution that attracts as much support as possible.