10 Techniques to Engage Stakeholders Successfully

Eadaoin Doherty

Eadaoin Doherty

Product. Pilates. Soy chai lattes.

Stakeholder engagement is an important part of being a product manager – but it can take a while to master.  Here’s some of the practical approaches I’ve developed that have helped me manage internal stakeholders.

Tip 1: Put yourself in their shoes

There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to engaging stakeholders, but every approach starts with empathy. You need to understand what each stakeholder wants to know and what they need to know about the product.  Being empathetic to the person’s role within the company, and their personality is a good starting point;

  • Are they in a senior leadership role or are they a peer?
  • Are they a fine details person or a strategic thinker?
  • How much time do they have to think about your product and the decisions you are making?
  • What’s their background? Have they been involved with a product/business like this before, or is this new for them?
  • Have you spotted a pattern in the way they communicate with their team? Can you leverage this approach when you communicate with them?

A stakeholder is anyone that has an influence on the development of your product including the leadership team, the sales team, subject matter experts, developers, designers or product managers from other teams.  The key is to figure how best to engage them.

Tip 2: Make them feel comfortable

It’s important to make sure everyone is comfortable with the processes your team is using. Agile processes may seem like second nature to you, but some stakeholders might not have worked in an agile environment before.  

There are lots of things about agile that can seem strange at first; 10 minute daily meetings, a preference to write code over writing documentation, and regular retros.  Stakeholders may need support in the transition to agile ways of working.

Storytelling is a very powerful tool, so give some examples to help them get an understanding.  An example I often share is that I worked in a team where our progress was very slow, and we didn’t know why.  We started to have daily standups and we realised the more junior developers were spending long periods of time stuck on problems and not asking for help.  Our daily standups helped us spot this immediately,  and once more senior members of the team helped out, our velocity significantly improved.

Tip 3: Create a shared understanding amongst stakeholders

Getting everyone on the same page is a huge step towards a more harmonious group of stakeholders, and to do this, everyone needs to feel heard and their opinion respected.

This can be particularly important with stakeholders who are very close to the customer or the market, such as sales teams, account managers, customer support teams and subject matter experts.  

These stakeholders often feel like they know the customer and market so well that they have all the information the development team needs to make product decisions.  These people often have many years experience and significant expertise, so getting them to work collaboratively with you is beneficial for the team and ultimately the user. 

There are a couple of approaches you can use for this, and often a combination is needed;

  1. Create a customer journey map. Get all your stakeholders in a (virtual) room and start creating a (digital) wall which maps out the user journey.  Have columns that show each stage the user goes through e.g. product discovery, onboarding, use, closing account etc.  Then create swimlanes for everyone involved in these activities, for example; user, sales team, customer service team etc. On this map, capture every interaction that can happen through the full engagement with the user, from how they discover the product, how they use the product and how they end their engagement with the product.   

From here, start highlighting all the pain points on this journey map. Some of these pain points will be with the users, but lots will be for the internal teams.  Acknowledge these, this may actually be where your product team needs to concentrate. This process is a great step towards creating a shared understanding of the product, the users and the pain points. 

2. Get stakeholders involved in user research. Usually your sales team or subject matter experts won’t run your user interviews, but it’s great if they can listen in as they will hear directly from users and help  you understand any industry jargon, or subtleties in user comments.

Don’t feel like you have to be the messenger between stakeholders. Where possible, get them in the same (virtual) room, so they can hear each others’ opinions and concerns first hand.  

Tip 4: Create empathy with your user

Users are one of the most important groups of people, but they are rarely there to represent themselves.  Using direct quotes gathered from user research can make the difference between stakeholders thinking of the user as ‘someone else’ or as ‘someone you really feel for’.  If you record user interviews you could even play back small sections of the video to your stakeholders so they can hear the feedback first hand.  

Tip 5: Get stakeholders involved in the prioritisation process

Not all stakeholders want to be involved in this process, but if they do, or if you find a stakeholder regularly complains about the delivery team not delivering what is most needed, get them involved.  There are many approaches to prioritising work, ensuring stakeholders understand how those decisions are made can have a hugely beneficial impact.

I once worked at a company where many of the sales team were frustrated that their customers’ needs weren’t being prioritised, so I asked them to attend the prioritisation meetings.  After attending several of these meetings, they understood why we were having to prioritise particular customer needs over others.  In fact, in one meeting, members of the sales team deprioritised their own customers’ needs, acknowledging that they were not where the company should concentrate efforts at that time. That was a good meeting!

Tip 6: Acknowledge that some stakeholders can be a little prickly and may need more attention

Sometimes the only way to win a prickly stakeholder over is to spend more time with them.  Embrace it as a challenge and a way to improve your stakeholder engagement skills!

If you know a person is likely to be difficult in a workshop, or when presenting a decision, get ahead of the game and talk to them first. Make sure they feel heard before the meeting, understand their key concerns and what they think the mitigations should be.  Then in the meeting, acknowledge those concerns and talk about the mitigation strategies.  Having this discussion ahead of time will give you more time to prepare, and allow you to seek input from your team if needed.

Tip 7: Keep everyone in the loop 

Remember, people hate surprises at work – so keep all your stakeholders in the loop throughout product development.

You might have the user journey map on a physical or digital wall that is available for everyone to see. You may have a public kanban.  You might choose to run regular showcases that are open for all stakeholders to attend. You may choose to send out regular updates by email, or you may need to use a selection of these approaches to meet the needs of all stakeholders. Which takes me nicely on to….

Tip 8: Be respectful of people’s time: Summarise!

One of the best tips that I’ve been given is that the more senior a person, the fewer lines there should be in emails you send them. An email to a CEO should never be more than 3 lines long!  It’s worth keeping this in mind with verbal communications too.  

Tip 9: Spot patterns in how your stakeholders communicate, and replicate them

If your stakeholders have a particular way they like to communicate, use it!  Look at how they speak to an audience and present information, and use those techniques when working with them, while staying within your own style parameters of course.  

For example, I once worked with a CEO who loved to use military analogies when communicating with the company. I had to give a presentation to him about the different directions my product strategy could take, and why I was recommending a particular strategy.  I didn’t want to use the military analogy as that wasn’t very me, but I knew if I took that kind of approach I would get a better response.  So I built my presentation around the game of chess.  Each chess piece represented a different potential product strategy.  The CEO loved the presentation!  He could really identify with it, and I got the feedback and response I needed to move forward with my preferred product strategy.  Bingo!

Tip 10: You don’t have to work this out all by yourself.  

If you see a colleague manage a particular stakeholder well, ask them for their tips on how best to work with that person.  You will learn as much in 30 minutes over a cup of tea as you may learn in a few months working with that stakeholder, especially if it’s someone you don’t get to spend much time with, such as the CEO or a GM.

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