Ask any seasoned PM what the most challenging aspect of their job is and you’ll get a unanimous answer — people.
It’s especially true when it comes to stakeholder management. Poor stakeholder management can make a PM’s life a living hell. The most common challenges include: conflicting priorities, lack of alignment and miscommunication, and politics and power plays.
How well you can navigate those challenges as a product manager has a tremendous impact on the quality of your work.
In this article, I’ll cover in-depth my favorite technique for keeping stakeholders in check. Let’s dive deep.
To address the challenges of working with people and stakeholders, you must build a system for managing stakeholders’ needs and expectations proactively and continuously.
The stakeholders management system is a set of tactics you use to keep stakeholders informed and engaged. While the exact approach depends heavily on the organizational context, the type of people you work with, and personal preferences, one tactic is gravely underrated — stakeholder interviews.
Nothing beats chatting with your key stakeholders on a regular basis. And with some structure, you’ll produce even more extraordinary results.
While grabbing a coffee with key stakeholders is a great first step to building a healthy stakeholder management system, you’ll get the most benefits if you pay attention to who you talk with, what you talk about, and how you debrief those conversations.
There are four key steps to nailing stakeholder interviews:
If you work in a small startup with a few people on the team, you have it easy. Set a meeting with everyone on a weekly or bi-weekly basis, and you are good to go.
Most of us aren’t that lucky, though. More often than not, we have more stakeholders that we can talk to, so we need to get strategic about whom we speak to and how often we do so.
One of the most efficient ways is to create a stakeholder map. Identify stakeholders and put them on a 2×2 grid using two main criteria:
While there’s no silver-bullet answer to what the right cadence is, as a rule of thumb, I’d start with:
I usually start with 30-minute long slots and then expand them over time if needed.
Fruitful meetings are intentional, so you must come to one with a plan.
The most common approach is to set a specific agenda, such as:
However, I don’t like agendas for 1-1 meetings. These conversations are simply too dynamic and context-dependent to plan upfront. Instead, I recommend setting up specific objectives for the meeting.
An example could include:
During the actual conversation, I check every now and then to see if I’m achieving the goals and try to steer the conversation in the right direction.
Although it might be tempting to use every minute of stakeholders’ precious time, don’t shy away from a casual off-topic question.
In the long run, you want not only to achieve your goals and align with stakeholders, but also build much-needed relationships.
I had a few stakeholder interviews where I didn’t achieve any of my intended goals because both I and the stakeholder got so deeply engaged in a non-work related topic. Counterintuitive as it might sound, these were the most productive 1-1s I had. They helped me establish a strong relationship, which made navigating further challenges significantly easier and more pleasant.
But when you do talk about the work, make sure not to overfocus on business as usual part of the conversation. As hot as current topics and challenges might be, carve out some time to zoom out and talk about high-level topics such as:
Treat these interviews as a strategic opportunity, not a mere catchup game.
If the interviews don’t lead to any new actions, you’re just wasting time.
Properly debriefing interviews helps you:
After conducting stakeholder interviews, I usually use my own stakeholder interview template to summarize my findings:
Nothing too fancy. I add a date for each conversation and note:
I copy-paste the template into a single sheet so that I can easily scan past conversations if needed.
Feel free to copy my approach or use whatever works for you.
I don’t see many product managers doing recurring stakeholder interviews. I get it. It takes a lot of time. It’s also often common to believe that “there’s nothing to discuss,” but there’s always something to unpack.
The goal is to solve issues before you’re even aware they exist. Worst case scenario, you’ll have some relationship-building space, and you’ll decide to decrease the meeting cadence.
When it comes to time, I won’t be lying to you; I myself often fall into the belief that I don’t have time for yet another recurring meeting. However, whenever I finally decide to start having regular conversations with a particular stakeholder, the only thing I regret is not starting sooner.
Well-led stakeholder interactions actually save time.
I feel like every ten minutes invested in productive stakeholder interactions gives me back fifteen minutes of saved time in other areas. The ROI is immense.
Test it out yourself. I encourage you to have at least two interviews with each of your key stakeholders in the upcoming month. After all, what’s the worst that can happen?
Featured image source: IconScout
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