The intersection between product management and diplomacy

The intersection between product management and diplomacy

While product management discussions often focus on the more technical aspects of being a product manager, (such as road mapping and prioritisation) it is important not to overlook the equally critical skill of stakeholder engagement.

For all product managers, the need for strong stakeholder relations  is essential in driving initiatives to market; in course correcting and iterating, and refining in-market propositions.

As a product manager you need to be commercially and technically skilled as well as a consummate diplomat in order to navigate and drive alignment across the business.

Engage key stakeholders early

I’m often surprised at product managers who assume that they can get traction and endorsement for their proposition at an executive steering committee or decision forum without prior engagement of key stakeholders.

A skilled product manager knows that you need to actively engage your stakeholders prior to any decision points. This enables you to have an early view of likelihood of support as well as an indicative understanding of  any likely points of contention or concern. Early engagement means you are able to respond, clarify and intervene where necessary.

In preparation for core decision forums, product managers need to:

  • Identify key decision makers – ask yourself, what is their core area of accountability? What aspects of your proposed strategy are they most likely to be interested in?
  • Identify key influencers – they may not necessarily have decision rights but can be well regarded within the business and often sought  for their opinion. Sketching out a stakeholder map can be a useful exercise in this regard.
  • Schedule 1:1 meetings with each stakeholder. Make sure that meetings are scheduled enough time in advance to be able to respond to any questions or objections raised, some of which may require additional analysis or research

Stakeholder engagement sessions can also be a great development opportunity for your team. They are an opportunity for them to learn,  as well as to share their expertise. So make sure you use them, where appropriate, as an opportunity to build and develop the skills within your team as well as credential your team across the business.

During your individual stakeholder meetings

Make sure that you actively listen to your stakeholders. Address any queries or concerns. That does not mean that you have to change your proposition (although in some cases it may be warranted), but you do need to demonstrate that you understand the core value drivers of your proposition and can manage any associated risks or issues.

Communicate and summarise the business value your product proposition will deliver:

  • What customer problem or need does your proposition solve for?
  • What does success look like?
  • How will you measure success and value delivery?
  • What are the high level financials underpinning your proposition?

Actively ask your stakeholder(s) whether they have any questions or areas regarding your product about which they would like more information or clarification.

Finally, explicitly advise them that you will be seeking their endorsement at the formal decision forum/committee and ask whether there are any outstanding issues/concerns which need to be addressed.

Follow up and drive alignment

Post your engagement meetings, make sure you follow up and close out any remaining questions.  The stakeholder meetings are not just ‘for show’, but are a genuine opportunity for you to explore, uncover and validate the key value of your proposition. They are an opportunity for you to drive alignment across the business.

Thank them for their time and consideration of your product strategy.

While no guarantee that your product strategy will be endorsed, effective stakeholder engagement will buy you stakeholder capital and will enable you to build trust and confidence in your proposition.

You won’t always get it right

As a product manager you need to be able to engage across many business units and domains and drive a consistent and well-informed ‘story’ in support of your proposition. Being well informed and knowledgeable will enable you to engage with your stakeholders with confidence.

As with all stakeholder negotiation, you will encounter both advocates and detractors. There will also undoubtedly be a good degree of healthy conflict and tension in your discussions due to competing priorities, pressures and perspectives.

Stakeholder engagement is an art and skill which requires practise.

You won’t always get it right and it will not always go smoothly. But being open to a diversity of stakeholder views and perspectives will help you successfully navigate and negotiate across the business.

A continued focus on active stakeholder engagement and management will ensure that your product management career will live long and prosper.

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