Product managers are meant to be many things – visionaries, decision makers, leaders and much more. But what about negotiating with stakeholders?
Negotiating with stakeholders is rarely mentioned outside an interview for a product manager – yet, in reality, being a product manager is a role that demands good political judgement. It’s all about setting and managing expectations.
Here are a few of my favourite tips for negotiating with stakeholders for you to immediately go and try out.
Secure Your Home Base First
We know from his ‘Commentary on the Gallic War’ that Julius Cæsar, a highly successful general and politician, adopted as a primary strategy the maxim “secure your home base first”. Ultimately, you’re always in a weaker position if you’ve not prepared the ground for what you hope to achieve. It’s the same for product managers, yet for us, it’s the simple things that get overlooked.
Here are some of the essentials that I ensure I have before even meeting a stakeholder:
Know who Your Stakeholders are
The first step in negotiating with stakeholders is to be strict about who your stakeholders really are. Some of the most complex products I have worked on have just a handful of stakeholders – three or five maybe. There are lots of people who have opinions, want to interfere or who like the sound of their own voice – but this doesn’t make them stakeholders.
For me a stakeholder is someone with a vested interest. Either they have a financial stake in the product (it’s their budget/cash) or they are responsible for the output, perhaps legally, like a clinical, financial or commercial director.
You need to be brutal, root out the people who are a distraction and identify the ones who are committed. There are always fewer of them than you think.
The Vision as a Tool
If you don’t know where you’re going, you’re not going to get there. At a minimum, a good vision needs to identify three things: the problem you are trying to solve, who you are trying to solve it for and what outcomes you want to meet (evidenced by a solid, meaningful KPI). Don’t turn up to talk to a stakeholder without this.
You can’t negotiate with stakeholders without starting from a solid, considered position because you will have no mechanism to push back against ideas that don’t align to your end goal, which is why…
…Alignment is Crucial
Start with the end in mind. As a product manager, you’re a storyteller. You have to orchestrate a number of characters to a conclusion. A big part of that is aligning them to certain outcomes. The outcomes should be clear in the vision you have, as we saw above. Now, the job is to make sure that anything that doesn’t align to an outcome doesn’t creep in to the backlog. Shoot bad ideas down early: “That’s a great idea, but it doesn’t align to the outcomes of this product, so I am not putting it on the backlog at this time”. Bullet dodged!
Justify Your Position
It’s simply not good enough to just feel or think that something is a good or a bad idea. Don’t let yourself get persuaded to put something in to your backlog because you can’t push back when you know it is the wrong thing to do. You need to be able to say why you shouldn’t have it. That could be about alignment, return on investment or cost of delay or whatever, but have some kind of reason backed up with data.
It goes both ways. A product manager should not act like a dictator. In order to be accountable, you need to know why you should have something up for development. Do the research, make sure you know your users, negotiate with your stakeholders, and consult your team. Don’t go rogue!
As now we have some fundamentals in place, let’s get down to business.
Don’t Play Games, get Stuck in
Those of you working in an agile environment will be familiar with concepts like self-managing teams, continuous improvement and fail fast. To a lot of people running a business – that’s those of us responsible for the commercial reality of an organisation – these things have a great intent but are often implemented poorly, leading to the reputation that agile is right out of the Wild West of delivery. The end goal of a business isn’t to get “bigger or better agile”, it’s to get stuff done by means of an improved delivery capability.2
Less procrastination, more product – that’s the role of the product manager, so set the example by driving the nature and pace of interactions. Here’s how:1
Ask Open Questions
Take control of the situation by getting the other party to do the talking. Start first, and start quick. I have found a great way to do this is to take the initiative straight away. Here are some typical open questions that I would use:
- What’s on your mind?
- How can I help?
- How are we doing then?
- Where’d you like to start?
…then keep the conversation going:
- Is that all?
- Anything else?
- What’s your biggest challenge here?
- Where are you trying to get to with this?
Meetings should be outcome-based, not time-based. People only started to book meetings in hour long chunks because Outlook told them to anyway. Don’t just turn up unprepared, rather you should see yourself as the chair of the meeting and set the outcome you want to meet, share it, and know where you want to get to and keep it on track.
Listen to and Understand the Problem Before you Diagnose it
As we saw above, starting the meeting by listening is the best way. Once you’ve done that and they are all talked out, use the ABC: acknowledge, bridge, convey.
Acknowledge: mirror what they have just said. “I see that you have a real issue here and I understand why you feel it is so crucial – thanks for sharing it with me…”
Bridge: link to your agenda. “I think the real question here is….”, “who else have you asked, I think they’d say…”, “what do you mean by…? I suspect you mean…?”.
Convey: bring focus back to your outcome: “What I am going to do is…”, “Here’s my suggestion…”, “let me explain where I am taking us…”.
Also, just to wrap up on this – learn to say no. We’re conditioned as children to learn to please, but we’re not kids anymore and product management is not child’s play. Saying no is the simplest form of setting an expectation, and sometimes, it’s best just to deny a request. Yeah, they will grumble about you, but it’s not a popularity contest. No one ever said being a product manager would make you best friends with everyone. Your reward will come when you get a great product out to market.
It’s What you Make of it
All requests, candidates and features have relative values. Anything can be split, traded and bartered. Remember that every decision is an emotional one – however much data you have to back it up – and that’s the nature of being human.1 Asking questions like: “If I start doing this for you, what can I stop doing in its place?” and “What part of this matters to you the most?” helps set the mentality that you’re not just there to take orders.
Deferred responsibility is the term used when people are trying to get you to carry the can. Only let this happen if you want it to. Remember that for all the tools, techniques and experience you have with technology, world-class product management is ultimately about how you deal with people – so to deliver amazing, improbable and seemingly impossible products that your users will love, stand your ground and don’t get pushed around.
To Summarise how to negotiate with stakeholders
Secure your home base first:
- Define who your stakeholders are
- Use the vision as a tool to avoid non-aligned work
- Aligning people to the vision is crucial and ongoing
- Be able to justify your position on a matter at all times.
Don’t play games, get stuck in:
- Ask open questions – command the situation
- Bring focus, don’t get distracted.
- Listen to and understand the problem before you diagnose it
- It’s what you make of it – so stand your ground and do what’s right.