Effective Product Manager - Stakeholder Management
As a recap, in the Effective Product Manager series we've talked about:
And I'm glad to hear that many of you found them helpful. As a reminder, feel free to send me questions you'd like answers to in future posts!
This week, I'm going to tackle effective stakeholder management.
Definition of "Stakeholder"?
It's always good to get the definition out of the way before explaining the hows. To be sure, let's focus on stakeholder in your product. Simply put:
A stakeholder is someone who's impacted by your product's outcome, and can directly influence decision making.
A stakeholder is different from a customer in that a customer does not have direct stake in product's decision making.
A stakeholder is different from the cross-functional members (e.g. engineering, design, data science, etc.) of your product team in that she does not directly "work" on your product.
Caveat is that people sometimes do refer to their customers and cross-functional members as their stakeholders too, and it's not completely wrong either; afterall, they do all have "stakes" in your product decision making. Either directly or indirectly. So you really just have to know what people refer to, and ideally break them down and talk explicitly. Why? because the way you manage them would be quite different.
Types of Product Stakeholders
Typically there are the following (non-exhaustive, and vary by product):
Leadership: basically the big bosses you and/or your team ultimately report into. Your (and your product's) success directly feed into theirs. E.g. head of product, VP of engineering, etc.
Business Partner Teams: often time your product team has business counterparts, and the product you deliver directly impacts the business they're responsible for. E.g. the sales org who sell the enterprise product you build, the insurance org who you build InsureTech solutions for, etc.
Other Product Teams: This is frequently seen in an ecosystem your product is a part of. Every part (sub-product) of the ecosystem directly links to one another and therefore cannot be managed like a standalone product. E.g. driver / rider facing products in a rideshare marketplace, job seeking / recruiter products on Linkedin, API developer products in a Partner Ecosystems etc.
And there could be more, depending on your products. Luckily the techniques to manage them well would be largely the same.
Why is Stakeholder Management Important?
You'd say: "because they hold the stakes, you dumb!" Well that's true. But allow me to expand with 2 things.
First, let me remind us an important part of a product manager's job:
A product manager does not always make decisions. She ensures the best decisions get made.
How are best decisions made? Not by the PM being the smartest, greatest, and with the strongest intuition. It's by collecting and synthesizing inputs from those who know something (but not all) valuable to the product/business. Guess what, your stakeholders collectively know a lot of valuable things to help you make the best decisions for your product.
Second, because your stakeholders are directly impacted by the outcomes of your product, if your product fail, they fail. Likewise, when they fail, you fail. Guess whose fault to blame? (HINT: not the stakeholder's).
So yes, let's manage them well. :)
How to Manage Stakeholders Well?
There's a lot of nuances in how we manage different types of stakeholders differently. Having that said, I was able to distill to the following top 3 general principles, that I found effective in all situations.
Know Their Goals: What do they really care about in their roles, and why do they have a stake in your product? This partly goes back to my piece about Empathy. Really be in their shoes and understand how your product impacts their goals, is the sure first step toward a successful stakeholder relationship
Early Alignment: Also known as "bring them along the journey". Meaning, engage them in the lifecycle of your product as early as possible, such as in problem identification and vision phases. Don't wait until you start the execution, because you run the risks of them not being aligned on what we're going after in the first place. Trust me, I learned the hard way.
Frequent Communication: You're off a great start by knowing the goals of your stakeholders and align them early. Be sure to communicate frequently and regularly along the way, by providing them visibility and actively seeking inputs. In the tech world, things change blazingly fast, so might your early alignment with the stakeholders. The best way to ensure continuous alignment, is to communicate, and re-align as soon as you see a gap.
Of course, all other tips I wrote about in building relationship helps too. Stakeholders are human too, after all!
Wait, is it really that simple? Not really. Though I can assure you that you'll improve stakeholder managements a lot by keeping the above in mind.
There are some common challenges I heard about and personally faced a lot:
Too Many Stakeholders
Conflicted Interests from Different Stakeholders
Let's get to each and talk about how you manage.
Too Many Stakeholders
The more complex your product is, the more stakeholders you might have to manage. Also as you climb the ladder to become a more senior product manager, chances are that the number of them increase significantly too. You're just one person with a 40 hour work week (normally...), and you have to manage (and meet with) so many team members and stakeholders to get your product going on the right track. How the heck can you manage?
Prioritize. There are probably way more stakeholders in the entire product lifecycle, than ones that are really critical at a point in time. Meaning you might have to critically identify (different) ones that are the most important in decision at this point in your project, and prioritize your time and attention on this subset. You might still have to engage with others lightly, but you don't have to spend equal amount of time with all. Usually, you can prioritize by looking at the phase of your product, and the the specific focus area of your product at the time.
Just as examples:
You might be able to spend more time with business and product leadership in the early phase to get buy in, and spend more time with go to market teams when it's close to rollout.
If your enterprise workflow product is currently focused the most on legal vertical you'd want to spend more time with legal stakeholders (than say, healthcare vertical stakeholders).
Conflicted Interests from Different Stakeholders
Different stakeholders have different goals. Some of their goals align, others demand completely different directions in your product. And chances are that the conflicts become more frequent as the number of your stakeholders grow. They all hold the stakes so you'd want to make them all happy. What do you do?
Strive for win-win: Always start from looking for options to get to win-win. These options might not be obvious because the conflicted interests look completely well, conflicted. Brainstorm harder before giving up to the next step, and keep the word "ecosystem" in mind when you do. An ecosystem by definition is to create a balance between all parties on the ecosystem and bring wins to all. Think about any marketplace product. It's no different to think about balancing different needs of your own product (marketplace or not).
Prioritize: Win-win might not always be possible. You also don't want to end up pleasing no one by being mediocre in all aspects. So you fall back to prioritization. Again at a given point in time you might have some stakeholders being much more important than others. Even across phases, some stakeholder's opinions are just more important than others. Not necessarily because of their titles/levels, but because they represent the business much more. Your (hard) job as a PM, is to approach it structurally, and make the hard (but right) decision.
Communicate:Making the tough decision is not the end of the story. You'd have to communicate clearly and broadly. Not only should you communicate about the decisions, you should also communicate how you arrive at the decisions. It's also not just about communicating, "how" you communicate matters too. Be sure to demonstrate your knowledge of all their goals, what you have looked and considered, and why the decisions were ultimately made. Note that you might not have full data points to assist you to defend against pushbacks. That's ok (and it's unrealistic to expect full data points). Call out what you don't know and how you'd go about learning about them down the road. Communicate with a sense of ownership (that you're ultimately responsible for the decision).
I briefly touched upon it in Stakeholder Empathy:
But, there’s a better way to look at it. Be empathetic toward the stakeholders as well. Their difficulties might be related to their personalities. Or it might be their side of the goals and stress that you don’t fully understand. It could be both. Understanding their needs and problems just like how motivated you are to understand your users, is going to make a lot of difference in not only how you better take in and respond to their (reasonable or seemingly unreasonable) requests, but also build a stronger relationship.
Effective Product Manager - Empathy, Introvert in Product
And I fully stand by the recommendation. Understand where that "difficulty" comes from goes a long way for how you deal with it. My personal experience (10+ years in product, hundreds of stakeholders) is that almost none has to do with them "wanting" to be difficult. It's in fact usually because of some needs unmet. Personally, knowing this is liberating because dealing with it essentially is about meeting those needs. Being solving their problems, making them feel heard, or even just show up in front of them more frequently.
It does also have a lot to do with different stakeholder's personal "style". Some is relatively gentle and friendly, others can be pretty direct and coming across as "aggressive". Managing different personalities and styles goes back to being a PM, let me repeat: Product manager is a people-centric role, and one needs to work well with all personalities and backgrounds. So this is a core skill you would have to practice everyday with everyone anyway. My only last piece of advice when it comes to facing "aggressive" style is:
Do the right things you're supposed to do (hearing them out, communicate clearly etc.), but make sure you keep your head up and be confident. Your job is to get the best outcome of your product. Your job is not to unconditionally please the aggressive stakeholders. They might be proxy to making the right decisions for your product, but they're not the only proxies.
That's about it for this topic! What are your experience and challenges managing stakeholders? Do you find the above helpful? Leave a comment below!
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