How do I manage tough stakeholder conversations?

Priydarshan Jha
7 min readJan 17, 2023

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How do I manage tough stakeholder conversations? — Priydarshan Jha

I never had to have any tough stakeholder conversations. All my stakeholder discussions were easy and like a breeze.

Just kidding, it hardly is easy!

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However, I do adopt some approaches so that I am positioned well to lead it effectively as a true Product Leader. But before delving into it let's set up some common ground around Stakeholders.

Who is a stakeholder?

A stakeholder is a person or group that has an interest or concern in something, especially a business. The interests of stakeholders can vary and may be in conflict with each other.

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A stakeholder for a product manager can include customers, users, internal teams (such as sales, marketing, and engineering), shareholders, and other stakeholders within the organization, as well as external partners and vendors. It's always a good practice to see your development team, QA, designers, etc. as well as stakeholders as they have an interest in the product and they have a big influence on the product. The product manager is responsible for understanding the needs and priorities of these stakeholders and using that information to guide the development and success of the product.

Why is stakeholder management challenging?

As pointed out above, the interests of stakeholders can vary and may be in conflict with each other.

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However, this is just the tip of the iceberg. There could be various factors that make it challenging:

  • Diversified interests: The definition of a stakeholder is so wide that there are often too many players in the game. Interestingly not all have the same objectives, interests, perspectives, and priorities.
  • Varied influences: All stakeholders are not equal and neither is their influence. There is a power/interest factor at play and it demands a strategic approach to handle the influence accordingly.
  • Communication and relationships: Stakeholder management is heavily influenced by communication strategy and relationship strengths. Finding out the right tone, appropriate depth, and suitable channels takes some trial and error to get to the sweet spot. The same is the case with stakeholder relationships. It needs an understanding of stakeholders, their pains, their gains, etc to build those deeper connections and strengthen relationships. An empathy map and stakeholder register could be effective tools for it.
  • Competing product priorities: This one is straightforward. The product has a vision and it has objectives that you as the product manager want to achieve. Hence the product has priorities that unfortunately will not be the same priority for others and would need efforts to gain that alignment.

Many more such delicate factors that play at the intersection of product business and human phycology make stakeholder management challenging and interesting at the same time. However, if done effectively, it could be very beneficial for the product's progress.

What benefits can you get from managing stakeholders effectively?

The effort put in to navigate effectively through the maze of stakeholder management pays off and the gains look like this:

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  • The product is aligned with the goals and objectives of the organization and its various stakeholders.
  • By engaging and communicating with stakeholders, product managers can gain a better understanding of customer needs and make more informed decisions.
  • Build buy-in and support for the product, avoid unnecessary delays, and reworks in the development process. Reduce other inefficiencies that can impact the product development process.
  • By engaging stakeholders in the product development process, product managers can identify and address potential issues early on and ensure that the product meets the needs and expectations of its intended users and customers.
  • Building strong relationships through effective communication and collaboration can benefit the company in the long run.

So, if effective stakeholder management is so impactful and beneficial, then how should we go about implementing it in the field?

What do I do to manage tough stakeholder conversations?

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  1. You can never be over-prepared: Preparedness is your most strategic ally in such cases. Study your stakeholders, their likes and pains, think through scenarios, anticipate objections, gather data and evidence to back your approach, etc. Always share the agenda and any related material (wherever applicable) in advance that can help others be prepared for the discussion. It makes you more trustworthy and gives you a good head start for a successful conversation.
  2. Communicate clearly and listen actively: Being clear and concise helps build confidence and enhances focus on the message that you want to get through. Be clear about your positioning and the rationale behind that stand. Avoid using jargon or technical terms that the stakeholder may not understand. But if you overdo it, you may start sounding arrogant. Apply active listening practice and pay attention to what the stakeholder is saying and try to understand their perspective. Ask open-ended questions to set the stage for a productive conversation. Ask questions to clarify their concerns and show your genuine interest in understanding others’ points of view (PoV). That enables you to be confident, trustworthy, and empathetic.
  3. Stay calm and avoid getting defensive: I know this could be a tough one as these conversations could sometime test your limits. Being calm, composed, and very professional may not be easy but is definitely the only way forward. Getting defensive is another detrimental position that you might take up unconsciously. This position pushes you to the corner and diverts your attention. Even if you disagree, be open and consider stakeholder feedback to see how it may impact your POV. Be open to all possibilities, without getting defensive about your perspective, and seek to clarify other possibilities through rational approaches.
  4. Find a Win-Win premise: Although everyone in the conversation might have a common larger goal, their positioning and approaches would vary. Seek common ground, look for areas of agreement and try to find ways to meet the stakeholder’s needs while progressing towards the larger common goal.
  5. Summarize and leave the table with an action item: This one is so critical that if not done well or not done at all; it will nullify the benefits gained from all the above points. Always, ensure to use the last couple of minutes to summarize at a high level the agreements and decisions taken, open topics that will be taken up later, and the plan of action for closed as well as open topics. It’s always beneficial to send short minutes of meeting (MoM) as a discussion follow-up to keep a record of progress and keep everyone (including those who could not attend, if it was a larger forum discussion) on the same page.

Summary

To sum up, there are no shortcuts to managing tough stakeholder conversations. We need to know stakeholders well, be strategic, establish authenticity, over-prepare, be flexible, be action-oriented, and last but not the least, enjoy the enriching experience. Because, when you will look back to these moments, you will find that these were the ones that shaped your professional capability and gave you fantastic avenues to strengthen your brain muscles. Remember, No Gain without Pain!

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About the Author

Priydarshan Jha (PJ) is a Product Leader with a vivid interest in working with People, Processes, and Platforms to create Product First organizations. He expertise in Product Consulting, Product Strategy, Product Management, Product Agile Transformations & Coaching. He is passionate about mentoring and coaching learners in the Product and Agile space.

Connect with Priydarshan on LinkedIn and DM for more in-depth discussions!

Disclaimer:
The views and opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the company they have been associated with. The information contained in this post is for professional learning purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional consultation and advice. The author makes no representations or warranties of any kind, express or implied, about the completeness, accuracy, reliability, suitability, or availability with respect to the content of this post. The author will not be liable for any errors or omissions in this information or any losses, damages, or other liabilities that may arise from its use. It is the reader’s responsibility to verify the accuracy and reliability of any information provided in this post before relying on it for any purpose.

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Priydarshan Jha

Product Management Leader from Toronto Canada. Expertise in Product Consulting, Product Strategy, Product Management, Product Agile Transformations & Coaching.