As a product manager, you can’t do your job if people don’t trust you. Since you’re not (usually) someone’s direct boss, you can’t “order” anyone to do anything. Instead, you need to get buy-in to your plans and ideas while satisfying the wants and needs of a variety of individuals within your organization, each bringing their own baggage, questions and concerns. This is an especially difficult task when the people you’re trying to win over are people who don’t think you’re doing an amazing job (and the reality is, those people may exist no matter how A+ your performance is).
“In product innovation, lack of stakeholder traction can often be a bigger roadblock than customer traction. These stakeholders may not only have access to essential information and resources you may need, but also influence key decision makers whose support is critical to the success of your product initiative,” says Product Management leader Shardul Mehta. “It’s important to identify who these folks are and make sure you’re not only bringing them along, but in fact creating them into advocates — evangelists — for your product initiative.”
Who are your internal product stakeholders?
There are generally three types of internal stakeholders:
1. The Executive Team. It’s pretty obvious why you need their approval, as they likely control budget and resources and want to make sure that your ideas and plans fit into the overall company strategy and priorities. Without executive approval, you’re not likely to get anything done, so you should be prepared to justify every enhancement and feature to this audience.
2. The second group of stakeholders are less obvious, but in some ways even more important. While these folks may not be able to approve or cancel a project, their support and trust is essential for your plans to be successful. These include the technical teams you’ll rely on to bring your ideas to life, operations teams you’ll need to deploy and support your products, and the sales and marketing organization that will put it in front of customers. While none of these folks may possess any veto power, their trust can be the difference between a launch that invigorates the entire organization and a dud that people only grudgingly support at a minimal level.
3. The third group falls into the “dotting Is and crossing Ts” category. You’ll want to ensure business owners, Legal, Finance and Compliance are all on board to make sure you’re not putting the company in a bad spot by breaching agreements, not complying with standards, and failing to fall within the fiduciary boundaries and general business “fit.”
Often stakeholders are higher in the pecking order than product management, and it can be difficult to interact with them on anything resembling a level playing field. This is why it’s important that your relationship expands beyond the purely transactional. If the only time you interact with a stakeholder is when you’re seeking their approval, you’ll be reducing yourself (in their eyes) as “that person who bugs me every time they want to do something” and not the mini-CEO you’re aspiring to be.
“Ensure that the individuals are involved with the product on a continued basis to avoid loss of knowledge and hand-offs,” says Roman Pichler of Pichler Consulting. “It is undesirable, for instance, that the marketing group sends a new representative every time a strategy workshop or review meeting takes place. Instead, one marketer should represent the group on a continued basis.”
What’s also difficult is that nearly everyone thinks they could be a fine product manager if given the opportunity; you don’t need to be in an expert with programming languages or know how to make an advertising buy or even know how to turn a cold call into a hot prospect. You may not be able to shake them of this notion, but you can surpass their expectations by being more knowledgeable about your market than anyone else, always doing your homework, and coming to discussions armed with both quantitative and qualitative data points and anecdotes.
Methods of Building Trust with Internal Stakeholders
Getting stakeholders to trust you won’t happen overnight, whether you’re a rockstar from Google or a newly converted business analyst. Stakeholders want to see you make decisions based on real-world facts, input from the voices they respect, and with agreed-upon business goals always top of mind.
While a track record of success and growth will eventually build your credibility, there are a few best practices you can employ from Day One to make stakeholders feel appreciated and impressed.
No one wants to be surprised or disappointed in business. People want to know where things are headed, when you’ll get there, and what to expect when you arrive. For each stakeholder, they’ll probably care about slightly different things. As a product manager, it’s your job to ensure stakeholders are told early and often what will and won’t be in each release and what the expected impacts on the metrics they care about will be.
“If you engage your stakeholders early in the project— ideally during the planning stage—everyone gets a common understanding of the scope, the timing, the budget and the resource demands from the get-go,” says Kevin Crump of Liquid Planner. “This means no major surprises later in the lifecycle, and no ongoing divergence between stakeholder vision and reality. That’s why we have menus in restaurants. We don’t just expect the waiter to serve us exactly what we want without discussing it first.”
Reality is inescapable, so you’re far better off telling stakeholders up front what to expect, even if it’s disappointing.
Make Stakeholders Feel Heard
You can only accomplish so much at a time and there are many competing priorities in every organization. It can be very tempting so simply reject their opinions or requests as soon as it doesn’t fit into your master plan, but resist that impulse — the key to maintaining your relationship with these folks is managing the feedback process gracefully.
Your initial reaction to a request should never just be “no.” You need to respect that their wishes are justified and you shouldn’t abruptly nix any further discussion. Instead, offer to look into what might be possible and then do some research. If you really can’t accommodate their request, then your next step should be identifying an alternative proposal (whether it’s another method for achieving the same end result or simply slotting it in at a later date because of more pressing issues). Finally, if you simply cannot accept their request, you need to provide the context of the complete product strategy, business goals, and implementation limitations that make this idea a no-go.
No one said keeping stakeholders happy was easy, but acknowledging the legitimacy of their ideas by doing your homework and offering feedback can go a long way.
Let Data Make the Case
You’re almost always destined to lose a battle of opinions to a senior employee. That’s why you should come armed with cold, hard facts that justify the direction you want to take.
“Change the game by quickly running a test and collecting some evidence,” says Marty Cagan of the Silicon Valley Product Group. “Move the discussion from opinions to data. Share what you’re learning very openly. It may be that neither of your opinions were right.”
Not only are stakeholders more likely to be won over with data than hunches, but it also show you’re taking a more analytical approach to your role, which can augment your credibility for the future. You can also use the voices of actual customers to make it less about your opinion vs. theirs and more about what’s the right thing for the market.
“Conducting stakeholder interviews and capturing their key assumptions, then interviewing consumers to see if those assumptions are correct, can help you see the gaps. The key is to deliver that information back to stakeholders without the sugarcoating,” says Cartin Stimolo of Continuum. “I’ve found that using quotations (unattributed, of course) and definitive language helps. It is the only way stakeholders will let go of their long-held beliefs and change their own behaviors.”[d]
Building the trust of internal stakeholders takes time, so set a precedent by managing expectations, making stakeholders feel heard, and using data to make your positions clear and defendable. Using these tactics while delivering successful products to the market will buy you a longer leash to take on more risks and greater responsibilities.