Updated: April 17, 2023 - 8 min read
No one who works in the tech industry works in isolation, just as no product is made 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.
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 products.
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 Management Vocab: Alignment
When working with stakeholders, what you’re working towards is alignment. For a Product Manager, alignment is the very first step in building a team that 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:
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.
The Outputs. Everyone is agreed on what the product is supposed to do, how it’s supposed to work.
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
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:
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.
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.
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
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.
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
Maggie Crowley, Head of Product Management at Drift
Azad Zahoory, Product Manager at Airbnb
Updated: April 17, 2023