Stop viewing stakeholders as adversaries to manage

Product Management Oct 4, 2021

Four lessons to move away from stakeholder management to stakeholder inclusion

As a Product Owner, you often have to deal with powerful stakeholders. Even though you’re rarely at the top of the food chain in the organisation, you’re supposed to act like you are the boss in the realm of product.

You’re a Product Owner, after all!

However, when you act as your title seems to suggest, then be prepared for swift disappointment. The ‘Owner’ part in your Scrum role is only bestowed upon you to the extent others allow you to wield that responsibility. Total control is rare.

Photo by cottonbro

In 10 years of building products, I’ve dealt with a broad spectrum of stakeholders ranging from the powerful and clueless to the highly skilled and knowledgable lacking political clout.

Stakeholder management used to be one of my weakest areas as a Product Owner. Because I had to survive in political environments with difficult and unreasonable stakeholders, it became one of my stronger aspects.

A strong Product Owner with weak stakeholder management skills can be a weak Product Owner depending on the composition of the stakeholder landscape. That is how important stakeholder management can be, everything else being equal.

Having to work with bullying stakeholders was tough, and I was close to quitting many times. Now I’m glad I persevered, as I’m no longer easily rattled and feel comfortable dealing with all kinds of people.

Along the way to leveling up my ability to deal with stakeholders, I’ve made many mistakes.

Here I’ll present the four most important lessons I’ve learned.

1. The fine art of pleasing people while saying ‘No’

Many Product Owners find it challening to say no. I can personally attest to this because I’ve seen many Product Owners get  buried by a stakeholder shitstorm as a punishment for trying to please everyone — and failing.

Saying no is problematic because it often leads to confrontation. Also, the pain of not doing something stings immediately. Saying yes is the easy way out and delays our hurt, and we can leave our future self to deal with that heartbreak.

Luckily, I’ve never had trouble saying no, and that part was something that came naturally to me. However, my naysaying did get me into a pickle more often than not.

Photo by burak kostak

To me, no is the easy part. The hard part is doing it in a way that preserves and possibly even strengthens the relationship with your stakeholders.

You should say no in a way that people don’t think you’re a dick.

Nobody likes hearing they won’t get what they want. Even if you have enough information to make the right call on the spot, don’t forget the human element in the equation. People want to feel heard, seen and respected.

By acting as if you know better and instantly rejecting their ideas, you can make someone else feel stupid — and that serves no purpose other than making them dislike you.

Next time someone asks for something that doesn’t make sense to you, try to understand where they are coming from. You can make them feel heard, seen, and respected. You are either rolling out the red carpet for a no or gaining novel insights toward a yes.

And instead of immediately pulling the trigger and saying no, remember you also have the option to take some time to think about it and get back to them.

After all, if you can immediately say no to someone, how much consideration did you really give to their idea?

Delaying my response when it seems like I’ve already made my mind up felt dishonest. However, as I gained more experience, I realized more and more that even with a high amount of confidence I was right, I could still be completely wrong. Delaying your answer means a healthy dose of skepticism towards yourself.

As famous physicist and bongo player Richard Feynman has expressed much better:

"The first principle is that you must not fool yourself -  and you are the easiest person to fool." - Richard Feynman

2. Practice stoicism — don’t let them get to you

A fundamental problem you will always need to deal with is that your stakeholders will want more than you’re able to provide. The number of fantastic ideas always seems to be approaching infinity, while the capacity to develop ideas seems to shrink the moment you start talking about it.

To make matters worse, when you do complex work, we suck at predicting when things will be completed. The few things you do work on often take way longer than expected, leading to even more frustration with your stakeholders. Because when things take longer it mean even less of their brilliant ideas reach customers.

Being a Product Owner or Product Manager often feels like running a restaurant with ten  seats with a line of 300 people waiting outside to be seated. No matter what you do, you will make people unhappy.

Image by Rahul Pandit

When you work under such stressful conditions, it’s easy to get frustrated when another stakeholder asks if you can work on X or when someone gets angry at you for a delayed feature while everybody is doing the best they can. But usually, this only produces more frustration, and it is counter-productive.

Frustration is not a form of communication. It’s a way of dealing with your own emotions. Don’t let your emotions get in the way of how you’re communicating. You should control your emotions, don’t let your feelings control you.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t have emotions or never be frustrated — we’re all human, after all. Or that it is even realistic to think you will always control your emotions. You should try to develop emotional awareness to know when your feelings are helpful or will put you at a significant disadvantage in an interaction.

Being frustrated at the right moment can help. Choose that moment instead of rolling the dice to leave it up to chance and potentially suffering from the repercussions.

3. Understand the different interests of your stakeholders

The better you understand the interests of your stakeholders, the better you will be able to communicate with them in a way that resonates with them.

I firmly believe most people have good intentions. By surfacing the intentions and interests of your stakeholders, you will be able to level with them. You will also be better able to predict how they will respond to certain situations and requests.

The biggest hurdle you’ll have to take is that this can feel insincere. You’ll be leveraging their interests to achieve your interests.

But remember, as long as your interests are in the company’s best interest, then you’re still trying to do the right thing. You have our company interests at heart and you’re only trying to achieve it in the most effective way.

4. Include important stakeholders in the Product Vision, Strategy and Roadmap

Whenever you tell a Stakeholder you won’t be fulfilling their request, you have to take a bit more time to explain the reasoning behind your no. This way, the next time they probably won’t even come to you with the request as they understand it doesn’t fit with the direction of our product.

The best way of creating common understanding is by collaborating on the Product Vision, Strategy, and Roadmap with important stakeholders. I’m not saying you should let your stakeholders do all the heavy-lifting, but they will feel included by involving them. This way, you can make sure you have a common understanding and buy-in from all stakeholders.

The illusion of total control makes it alluring to throw your Product Vision, Strategy, and Roadmap over the fence to your stakeholders. It is much more difficult, vulnerable, and uncertain if you dare to include them in the creation. However, the more confident you are in your communication and influencing skills, the less worried you will be.

The only way you can achieve this confidence is by having regular 1-on-1s with your stakeholders, to explain the basic principles behind Agile and Product Management if they don’t know those already. Of course, don’t be pedantic about it. Only bring those topics up when it makes sense.

Also, by building trust and a strong relationship, you create a safe space for productive friction, which is necessary to deliver the best results.

Here are some of the topics you should cover:

  • Why the ability to estimate and forecast timelines accurately often has no bearing on your ability to deliver
  • Why delivering more features doesn’t mean you are delivering more value.
  • When a customer asks for a feature, we shouldn’t take it at face value and try to unpeel the layers below that request. Uncovering the layers that are present below isn’t easy, but you should assist them in asking the right questions.

This quote by David Ogilvy shows why it is dangerous to immediately build features that customers are asking for:

"Consumers don't think how they feel. They don't say what they think and they don't do what they say." - David Ogilvy

You might be wondering what’s a good way of including and collaborating with your stakeholders. Look into Liberating Structures (LS). The Liberators have written many great articles explaining how to use them. Liberating Structures are an underrated tool in a Product Owner or Product Manager’s toolbox.

Stakeholder Inclusion — making sure we’re all in the same boat

Let’s be honest, there never is a single person who owns the Product. At best, a Product Owner can aim to be like a coxswain — the person sitting at the front of a rowing boat who ensures we’re working together instead of rowing against each other.

The key to achieving this is to stop viewing your stakeholders as adversaries and bringing them on board. By listening and taking them seriously, you might learn a thing or two that will broaden your perspective on the Product, and in return, they will take you seriously as well.

A Product Owner who acts like only they own the Product and disregard others is a Product Dictator. In a powerful stakeholder landscape, people like that get eliminated from the company landscape quickly. It’s difficult to be a dictator when you’re not at the top of the food chain.

I’ve also seen the opposite, people who  try to please everyone and upset all stakeholders. Those Product Owners often survived longer because likable people are good at staying below the radar —they are likable after all!

The better you get along with your stakeholders, the more you will be able to achieve. The main challenge is getting your stakeholders to like you while you rarely give them precisely what they want.

A large part of Product Ownership is mastering the fine art of pleasing people while they don’t have it their way. The scary magic trick to make this work is to include your Stakeholders from the beginning, instead of trying to manage them — and failing.

Now it becomes our way, instead of their way.