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Improve your product stakeholder relationships with this simple checklistImprove your product stakeholder relationships with this simple checklistImprove your product stakeholder relationships with this simple checklist

Improve your product stakeholder relationships with this simple checklist

We all know that managing relationships with stakeholders is a huge part of product management work, whether you are a Head of Product getting the whole company on board with your strategy, or a junior product manager helping customer experience folks understand where customer feature requests are sitting in the backlog.

While there are many frameworks for thinking about how you manage your stakeholders, at The Product Refinery, we often find that a simple checklist with five areas is a great starting point to make sure you’ve got everything covered.

In this article, we’ll explore the five key areas you need to have covered if you’re going to manage your stakeholders effectively. For each of the areas, there’s a short set of questions. If you answer ‘no’ to any of them, those are the places you can look at first to help improve your stakeholder relationships.

Goals alignment

Having a clear shared understanding of your goals, being open about where they conflict, and working towards resolving those conflicts is the base that will help you build effective relationships with your stakeholders. Check you’ve done these things to make sure you are set up for success with your stakeholders.

Get your house in order first

Before you can start getting people on board, you need to be clear on your goals. This means being able to articulate the product goals in a way that’s easy to understand for people in other parts of the business.

Start stakeholder discussions by zooming out

Often this means zooming out a little to show how the product goals relate to the larger business goals. Starting with broader business goals is a good way to begin a discussion about goals with stakeholders. It’s important to make sure you both have the same understanding of the business goals you are contributing to before you start discussing their department’s goals. If you aren’t aligned on what the broader goals of the business are, it’s a good idea to work together with someone closer to those goals to develop a clearer shared understanding.

Listen carefully for your stakeholders’ goals and motivations

You’ll also need to be clear on your stakeholders’ goals and motivations, so you can identify areas where they are not aligned. If your company is working with OKRs or another consistent goal-setting system, this is relatively simple – you can just ask. It’s also useful to unpack whether there is anything that’s likely to conflict with those goals. For example, a company might have a high-level goal to get more customers using their digital offering but sales teams still have bonuses and targets based on in-store sales.

Find mutually-beneficial ways of working towards your goals

When discussing your product goals and the plans that support them, ask stakeholders how your product goals contribute to their own, and where you can help each-other achieve your goals.

Goals-alignment checklist

  1. Are your product strategy and goals articulated in a way that’s clear and easy for stakeholders to understand?
  1. Do you and your stakeholders have a shared understanding of the broader business goals?
  1. Do you understand your stakeholders’ goals and motivations?
  1. Do you understand how your work contributes to your stakeholders’ goals?

Clear roles & responsibilities

Confusion around roles and responsibilities is the root cause of so many product management problems, so it’s vital to get this right with your stakeholders. Even if you’ve been working with them for some time already, a simple review and reset here can work wonders.

Have you already taken the steps on this list? If not, use the gaps to help you improve your stakeholder relationships.

Know who your stakeholders are

It sounds blindingly obvious, and you could argue it should be the starting point for all work with stakeholders. but you’d be surprised by how many people don’t have a complete picture of all the stakeholders involved in the product and what role they play in building or using it.

The best way to get started here is with a simple list – start by writing down all the people you know are stakeholders. Then go broader. Use any service maps, you have for the product itself and for your internal processes to see who you missed then add them to the list.

It’s also useful to consider the question ‘Who is not currently a stakeholder but should be?’. There may be people from your long list that could help you achieve your product goals but are not currently involved.

Understand the value exchange

The basis of most successful relationships is in some kind of value exchange. For that reason, it’s important to understand where your stakeholders can contribute most value to the product, and what kind of value they receive in return.

Among other things they can contribute, a stakeholder might have some kind of knowledge (e.g. information from customer conversations), specialist skills (e.g. domain skills related to your industry), or some kind of influence over others in the company that helps you execute on your product plan.

If you’ve done the goals-alignment right, you’ll also know how you can add value to your stakeholders. It might be in helping them reach their goals, or simply involving them in a way that they find interesting.

Effective relationships with stakeholders are not purely transactional, but making sure there is some kind of value exchange will make them easier to manage, even if it’s not explicitly stated.

Map out how stakeholders will contribute

Formalising how stakeholders will contribute to the product process means you all have a shared understanding, nothing slips through the gaps, and people aren’t stepping on each other’s toes.

We suggest a RACI as a simple way of making sure you involve your stakeholders in your product process in the most effective way possible. The acronym stands for:

Responsible: People or stakeholders who do the work. They must complete the task or objective or make the decision. Several people can be jointly Responsible.

Accountable: The owner of the work. He or she must sign off or approve when the task, objective or decision is complete. This is usually the person who assigns others to the R,C and I categories of the RACI. Only one person is Accountable.

Consulted: People or stakeholders whose input would be valuable or useful before the work can be done or signed-off. These might include experts, specialists and senior stakeholders who are involved in specific parts of the project.

Informed: People or stakeholders who need to be kept "in the picture." They need updates on progress or decisions, but they do not need to be formally consulted, nor do they contribute directly to the task or decision.

For each stage of your product process, think about which of the above categories your stakeholders fall into and agree on it with them, then make a note of it somewhere you all have access to.

Stakeholder roles & responsibilities checklist

  1. Do you know who all your stakeholders are?
  1. Do you and your stakeholders know what you get out of the relationship?
  1. Are your stakeholder roles and responsibilities agreed and documented?

Transparent process

A surefire way to annoy stakeholders is to take their idea suggestions and feature requests, then put them into the ‘product black hole’ where they are never seen again. And it’s surprisingly common – so much so that there are a ton of memes about it.

Product black hole meme by Anthony Murphy

But, by being transparent with your processes, you can build trust in your stakeholder relationships. And it’s relatively simple to do.

Help stakeholders understand the product process

First up, a little education. Help stakeholders understand the product process — through informal discussions, documents, or a workshop — as a basis for managing their expectations. For example, if stakeholders understand that a conversation you’ve had is part of the discovery process, and plays a part in the broader picture of what gets build (or doesn’t get built) down the line, it makes them less likely to think you’re going to go ahead and build whatever idea they suggested next week.

Helping them understand the ‘why’ behind their involvement also helps them contribute more effectively. For example, simply understanding where a particular meeting fits in the broader context of the product process means people can arrive more aligned and ready to contribute.

Be clear about how decisions are made

Being clear on the criteria you use to make decisions helps demystify the product process for stakeholders and makes the whole process fairer for them. This is particularly true for the common friction point of deciding what gets prioritized in the backlog. For example, if you use the RICE model (reach, impact, confidence, effort), let stakeholders know what each of the terms means and how you score them to decide what to build.

If you have set up good decision-making criteria, it will be apparent to stakeholders how your decisions contribute to the overall success of the business and they are less likely to get frustrated if your decision doesn’t align to their personal priorities.

Let stakeholders know how to input into the process and decisions

If you have engaged stakeholders that are keen to input into product decisions, it’s important to manage how they do that. The key to this is being really clear on what you want from them.

For example, if you are in discovery working with stakeholders who are regularly in contact with customers, you might want to coach them a little on how to ask good questions about customer problems. If you explain to the stakeholders that the most valuable information at this stage is around the problems customers face, rather than the feature ideas they have (and give an example to ensure they understand), you’re more likely to get useful information from them, and as a consequence, build a stronger relationship where their contributions are valued.

As well as what kind of input you want, be clear on the format you want it in. That means setting up the right communication channels (more on that later) and communicating clearly what they are for.

Transparent process checklist

  1. Do your stakeholders understand your product process?
  1. Do your stakeholders understand how product decisions are made?
  1. Do your stakeholders know how to input into the product process and decisions?

Expectation management

If you’ve answered ‘yes’ to all the questions so far, you’re likely well set up to manage stakeholders’ expectations. But even with the most transparent processes and aligned teams, plans change from time to time, so managing expectations at every stage of the product process is vital.

Broadly speaking, this means having the following three things covered.

Give stakeholders adequate visibility into appropriate product plans

The type of product plan you use with stakeholders will vary depending on their level of involvement with the product. For example, senior stakeholders may only want to see the high-level roadmap in a quarterly update, whereas people deeply involved in the process might need access to a prioritized backlog or a list of what’s in the current sprint.

The important thing here is that stakeholders have access to what they need and that you are active in helping them engage with it. That means talking to them about the plans, checking they can access them, and gathering their feedback on them – not just giving them a link to your roadmapping software or most recent deck.

Make sure stakeholders understand the product plans

The dreaded question ‘When will it be ready?’ tends to rear its head when talking to stakeholders about product plans. And for good reason. Most functions in companies are used to delivering a pre-defined thing at a certain time and it can be very difficult for people to understand the complexities and ambiguities in product work. This means that ‘it depends’ is not an adequate answer for most stakeholders.

One of the most effective ways to manage these conversations is to make sure stakeholders understand how the plan works first. For example, if you are discussing a roadmap you might want to explain how the items on it are outcomes, not individual features you plan to build, and that the items further into the future are less specific and more open to change because there are more unknowns related to them.

On a nearer term scale, it’s relatively easy for stakeholders to understand that what’s in a current sprint is pretty likely to be delivered and that things that haven’t even been scoped yet are far off.

Give stakeholders appropriate notice of changes to those plans

When circumstances cause the product plans to change, stakeholders need plenty of notice. Their own plans might be affected by these changes, so even though it might be a difficult conversation to have, it’s better to do it early on.

If you have already put effective communication channels in place, you should have a regular forum where you can give notices of these sorts of changes. Which leads nicely into the final area.

Effective communication strategies

Effective ongoing communication with stakeholders is key to building a trusting relationship. That means being intentional about how you communicate and having a strategy to support your communication.

Understand your stakeholders’ needs

You’ve got a product background so you already know how to research customer problems and user needs, right? Well, do the same for your stakeholders and their product communication needs.

Think of the relationship from their perspective; talk to them about it; understand how it fits with the rest of their work. Once you understand things from their side, you’ll be in a good place to start putting together your communication strategy.

Set up appropriate channels and cadences

Now that you understand your stakeholders’ needs, you are in a place to set up communications that work for them. Start by thinking about channels and cadences. What is the most convenient way for the stakeholder to receive the information they need, and input as needed, at each stage of the product process?

If your senior stakeholders live out of their email inbox, make that the channel. If they find it easier to time-box an hour for a live update, set that up. Going back to your RACI (if you made one) will help here.

It’s tempting to communicate in a way that suits you but if you flip the focus to what works for stakeholders, you’ll find they are much more engaged.

Communicate using an appropriate format

Some people will respond better to raw data, others to storytelling in a short video, a powerful visual or even just a slack update. It’s up to you to find out what works best for stakeholders and tailor your communication appropriately.

Sure, it’s more effort than sending out a link to a dashboard or deck, but it’s worth it to make sure everyone understands what’s going on, is aligned, and can input in the most effective way possible.

Communication strategy checklist

  1. Do you understand your stakeholder’s product communication needs?
  1. Are there appropriate communications channels and cadences set up?
  1. Are your communications in a format that suits stakeholders?

In summary…

Managing stakeholder relationships is one of the most complex parts of product managers, for people working at all levels in product. It’s tempting to see it as a mysterious art form, or innate skill that only some people have.

But the reality is that there’s a relatively simple checklist you can use to make your stakeholder relationships more effective. It requires you to put in the effort (yes, it is hard work) and have the difficult conversations where needed, but is worth it for the rewards it brings.

So, run through the checklist questions on this page for yourself or your product department and be honest with your answers. Where can you improve your stakeholder relationships and what could you do today to get started with that? And, if you need help on the way, get in touch with us to see how a product coach can help you or your team.

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