Product Management Skills: Stakeholder Management

No one who works in the tech industry works in isolation, just as no product is developed in isolation. The same can be said for Product Managers, who can often be found running here there and everywhere, connecting different teams and meeting with a myriad of people.

Whilst you’re running around chasing after user feedback data, wireframes, and trying to schedule one-to-ones, there’s another key part of your job that often gets overlooked…stakeholder management.

Stakeholders

What Is a Stakeholder?

A stakeholder, not to be confused with shareholder, is anyone who has an interest or is involved in a product. For example, in a tiny startup with a team of seven people the stakeholder list might just be those seven people. Then they get investors involved, and those investors become stakeholders. When the startup is acquired by a larger parent company, the stakeholder pool gets much larger. Your customers/users could also be considered stakeholders, along with your PR company, or your stockists for hardware produts.

Not all stakeholders are created equal. The CEO of your company will have more authority and will play a larger role in the growth and ownership of the product, compared to the engineers who are building it.

The CEO, for all intents and purposes, owns the product and therefore has the final say on high-level product decisions. But the engineers are the ones with the more intimate day-to-day knowledge of the product and may be more equipped to make informed decisions. As the ones in the trenches, they also deserve to be listened to.

This is why stakeholder management is so key to the role of Product Manager. Someone needs to be running interference, and understanding which voice to listen to regardless of which one is louder.

Product Manager

Product Management Vocab: Alignment

When working with stakeholders, what you’re working towards is alignment. For a Product Manager, alignments is the very first step in building a team which works efficiently and effectively. Because without alignment, everyone is trying to build their own vision of the product which is nothing short of a recipe for disaster!

Getting stakeholders aligned means everyone understands and agrees on three key aspects of the product:

  1. The Vision. Everyone has the same North-Star, and they know exactly what the desired outcome of the product or feature is. The Vision is the version of our world with your product in it.
  2. The Outputs. Everyone is agreed on what the product is supposed to do, how it’s supposed to work.
  3. The Outcomes. How users are supposed to feel about your product, and how it fits into their lives.

For example, let’s imagine that you’re trying to build an app for your city’s electric bike network. Your vision is a cleaner, greener city with less traffic and lower carbon emissions. The output is an app which makes finding your nearest bike easy and cost-effective. The outcome is an increase in people who rent bikes from the city.

You may also be interested in: Should Product Managers Focus On Outcomes Over Outputs?

If any of your key stakeholders are not aligned on one of these three things, there’s going to be a major disconnect somewhere along the development pipeline. Best case scenario, it wastes time and resources. Worse case scenario, you end up launching a contradictory product that confuses users and bombs hard.

Top Stakeholder Management Strategies

Stakeholders in a meeting Graphic

You may hear the term ‘stakeholder analysis‘ in relation to stakeholder management, and this deserves an explanation on its own, as you’ll need it for all of the following strategies.

It involves thinking strategically about who your stakeholders are, what they need, and how to talk to them. It’ll help you work out how best to gain alignment, and is absolutely vital for communications planning. A successful project relies heavily on positive stakeholder engagement, whether they’re the product owner, an investor, or your team members.

Which mean you, the Product Manager, need to get strategic:

1. Stakeholder Mapping

Stakeholder maps are an excellent way to visualize your pool of stakeholders, to help you understand who needs to be involved in what, and when. Check out this example from our friends at Miro:

Miro stakeholder mapping template

As you can see, the map includes both external and internal stakeholders, and those who are actively involved in the development of a product and those who are more invested after launch. Shareholders are included, but they are of course not the only stakeholders.

Having a stakeholder map will help you to see how your various stakeholders are connected and helps to paint the broader picture.

2. Stakeholder Prioritization

Similar to mapping, Stakeholder Prioritization helps you to figure out who is the most important out of your stakeholder pool.

Stakeholder prioritization template Miro

It helps to organize your stakeholders into 4 groups, based on their power and their interest in the project.

High power, low interest: These people just need to be kept satisfied. They’ll want routine reporting/results, but they should be relatively hands off. Keep them happy, but they don’t need to be heavily involved.

High power, high interest: These are your maximum effort stakeholders, and your highest priority.

Low power, low interest: These are your minimum effort stakeholders. Monitor them and make sure you’re aware of their thoughts and movements, but there’s no need to drop everything to please them.

Low power, high interest: These people are heavily invested in the project, without the power to oversee final decisions. So update them regularly.

3. Always Bring The Data

This strategy is as important to stakeholder management as it is to product management in general. We’ve spoken at length about the reasons why Product Managers need to understand data, and they should also resonate with you when it comes to communicating with your stakeholders.

Without data, you’re just another person with an opinion, and when you’re trying to influence stakeholders, it’s critical to come armed with more than just opinions.

4. Be Human

This is the most valuable advice that anyone can give you if you have to work with other people…remember that they’re people to. Instead of seeing that investor, or your CEO, or your suppliers, as roadblocks to an easy life, see them as human beings. They have goals and things that they need from you. If you work out what those two things are, you’ll know how to best relate to them.

You may also be interested in: Why Human Skills Are Increasing in Value

The Different Types of Stakeholder

It’s all very well knowing all of the best stakeholder management strategies. But what makes this aspect of a Product Manager’s life so much more complicated is you’ll always need to tailor your approach depending on which stakeholder you’re dealing with.

A great product manager knows exactly who they’re dealing with and how best to approach them. Boeing’s Product Manager Matt Weiss breaks down the different types brilliantly in his talk ‘15 Strategies to Manage Stakeholders.’

The Danger Stakeholder

This stakeholder is someone who has a strong influence on the team but doesn’t align with the goals of the development team. This could be for any number of reasons, perhaps they’ve invested in the business without really understanding where their money is going. Or perhaps the Head of Product is pushing for a pivot without properly explaining why, or without the data to back up their decision.

The Cautious Stakeholder

This is someone who doesn’t have a strong influence on the team, but has some very strong opinions on product development. Their voice can often sound like the loudest, but refer back to your stakeholder prioritization map to see where they really fit in.

The Advocate Stakeholder

This person has a strong influence on the team, and is fully aligned on your goals. This person is your greatest ally and your life would be so much easier if all your stakeholders were like this. Don’t rest on your laurels and accidentally prioritize other, less important stakeholders just because they’re more vocal. Make sure you keep your advocates happy, or risk losing them.

The Supportive Stakeholder

This is someone who is aligned on your goals, but doesn’t have a lot of power over the team. Make them look good and keep them around, and make sure they feel appreciated, but don’t bump them up your priority list just because they’re saying the things you like to hear.

How To Deal With a Difficult Stakeholder

difficult stakeholder

So you’ve tried all of the above strategies, but you still have that one stakeholder who makes you dread their every email. Perhaps they ignore you for months and then swoop in at the last minute to demand changes. Or maybe they’re on your case every day, and you feel them constantly breathing down your neck.

The first thing to do is remain calm. No matter who they are, angry words spoken in haste will not help your cause. Depending on who they are, and how severely they are misaligned on your goals, consider passing the problem on to someone higher up than you. What might feel like playground politics in the moment will save you a lot of pain later on in development.

You might have to have an uncomfortable conversation, which you shouldn’t shy away from.

You might also be interested in: How Soft Skills Can Save a Business

What Do The Experts Say?

The best way to learn a new skill, is from those who use it every single day. In our weekly #AskMeAnything sessions with different product leaders, stakeholder management is a popular topic. Here’s what the experts have to say:

Bruno Pais, Product Owner at Booking.com

How do you manage different stakeholders in the product life-cycle, instead of being reactive, how do you remain productive?
In my experience, the things that have been pretty much working are all around building a clear documentation structure, which includes: roadmap, document what your product is doing, clear documentation of APIs/ features and how to gather data.If you zoom out most of the time the frequent questions our stakeholders want to know, is “what”, “when”, and “how” so in every project I focus from early days to have all that documented so you free up your time for a more proactive and productive approach.

Check out the full AMA here

Maggie Crowley, Head of Product Management at Drift

What do you say to stakeholders who want to by-pass any discovery or don’t see value in creating 1-pagers and want to go straight to JIRAs?
This is pretty much NEVER a good idea, I’ve been burned every time I skip this step.For these stakeholders, I will just do it anyway on the side. Even just spending an hour writing up the problem and outlining some open questions can help – especially if you then start to ask that stakeholder those open questions often times I find that the person has a couple of foundational assumptions that either I don’t have/share or they’ve just gotten too excited and need to take a minute to think.No one has ever been upset when I’ve taken some extra time (even if it’s my own nights and weekends time) to do some problem exploration.

Check out the full AMA here

Azad Zahoory, Product Manager at Airbnb

How do you go about creating trust across the organization to get stuff done, when teams have different priorities and objectives and you have no formal authority on any of them?
It all comes down to communication:Explaining to stakeholders : Teams that you are dependent on, as well as teams you are not dependent on, explaining the value behind what you are doing to the company. What is the financial impact of what you are doing? What is the customer impact of what you are doing? What is the UX/technical impact of what you are doing? What value are you unlocking?Listening, and understanding what other teams and other stakeholders care about. What drives other teams? What metrics matter to them? Proving and showing to the organization that you are aware of what they care about, and that you will positively impact their worlds which will inspire them or put them at ease.

Check out the full AMA here

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