September 29, 2021

Product Owners - Stakeholders Are People

Recently, I spent some time with a few Product Owners (POs) who work at large financial services companies. I love spending time with people supporting the accountabilities of the Product Owner because I consider myself a product person and love listening to how others have solved many of the problems I still encounter when working on delivering products. During the conversation, we came to a particularly thorny topic. How do you, for the lack of a better word, “manage” Stakeholders? 

 

OK - Let’s start with the basics.

The PO is responsible for maximizing the value of the product as created by the Scrum Team. That means they do everything to ensure that the team or teams are delivering the right stuff, in the right order. To do that effectively they have to define goals, order the Product Backlog, and generally get dirty managing that messy intersection of business problems, users, customers, team capabilities, organizational capabilities, technology, budget, constraints, governance, and stakeholder needs. In fact, they have to balance so many things I am sure I have forgotten one! This situation is what makes the job both fantastic and also a real challenge. If you get it right,  you can change the world, deliver amazing value, build lifelong relationships and feel large amounts of karma from everyone you are working with. If something goes wrong, you end up in the totally opposite position. To be effective in this role, the way you work with Stakeholders is crucial. 

OK - Let’s get back to the discussion with these POs. 

The question they posed sounded pretty simple. How much time should we spend with stakeholders versus the team? 

Of course, the answer is, it depends on the situation. But that is never good enough so we started talking about the reality in large-scale financial services companies. From this discussion, we came up with a few things that I would like to share: 

  1. Be mindful of your stakeholders. That means to write down who they are and keep notes on them. It sounds a bit odd to keep a record of your stakeholders and make notes on when you talked to them and what they were thinking, etc. But, in many large companies, there are loads of stakeholders and interactions happen in the middle of lots of things. So take some time after each interaction to make a note or two about what happened. 
  2. Manage and plan time with them. It is easy to spend time with the loudest and most ‘important’ ones, but take a moment to see if you are giving a fair amount of time to others. It is possible that not only do these people give the best insights, but they can also be the biggest challenge at key moments in the product’s life. 
  3. Try and get to motivations and needs early. Every stakeholder has their own agenda, context, and narrative. Try to get a view of those things to build a better understanding of their needs. In a large organization, the number of agendas and contradicting needs is massive, and getting a handle on how that might affect the product you are working on is crucial. Asking some open-ended questions is always a good start. For example ‘what does done look like to you?’, ‘How do you measure success?’ 
  4. Get out the meeting construct. One of the biggest negative patterns of the Covid-19 world is that the only interactions you have with some people are in the context of a meeting. This does not leave much room for a quick chat, or a nice open-ended question over a coffee. It is however important to appreciate this and try and work around it. This might mean one on one calls. Tools like Slack can help and hinder this. Sometimes a quick chat on Slack can be more informal, but you also do lose context. 
  5. Remember stakeholders are people, too. Often too busy, dealing with balancing lots of different needs, worried they are dropping too many balls is the reality for many stakeholders. And yes, the ones with the most insight and that can add the most value to your Sprint are often the most popular with other people as well. Be mindful that you are just one slice in a very overcommitted pie. Instead of adding to their stress, be mindful and try to help them add value to your product with clearly structured interactions, actionable summaries, prepared questions, and facilitated meetings. By investing a little bit more time upfront, stakeholders can become even more valuable. 

Perhaps the final piece to managing the stakeholder puzzle is to make your interactions fun and enjoyable. It seems obvious, but I have sat through too many meetings where everyone was super grumpy, super stressed, and super not interested. I am not saying put on your event planner hat, but a large part of how stakeholders perceive a project is how they interact with its people.