There’s a real dearth of articles out there on how to be a good stakeholder — it’s all variations of managing or taming the difficult ones. It made me wonder if many stakeholders know what the role involves and what good looks like? Do they receive training or guidance? Do they even get a choice about whether they want to be one? This led to a bout of empathy for our stakeholder sisters and brothers, sparking an extravagance of further thinking, leading to these very words.
What follows is my take on the stakeholder mindset we (delivery and product folk) ought to promote, teach and coach. My hope is it helps someone, anyone, approach this vital and difficult role afresh.
Let’s start with a ‘stakeholder’ definition so we’re all on the same page.
What is a stakeholder?
a person with an interest or concern in something, especially a business
Let’s add a little context. My focus is on those internal stakeholders who affect or who are affected by a goal or a product or service. They usually represent a business function or team and play a role in ensuring a product or service delivers value to a customer(s). These stakeholders can wear multiple ‘hats’ concurrently, as well as wearing different ones in sequence, depending on the situation. Finally, these stakeholders are human beings, too, lest we forget.
What might we expect to see from a good Stakeholder?
Think of this as the ‘about you’ part of a job description, the bit that captures the essence of the role and the mindset you possess.
We build trust together, it’s a daily commitment. You start by taking a leap of faith and trusting the work of our teams on day one.
The business relies on your ability to work together with other stakeholders and product teams toward the business’s goals.
Be an advocate for our product or service, spreading the good word every chance you get. If you serve on any leadership teams, be our voice there, too.
Make yourself available, invite awkward questions and ask people to challenge your thinking.
Remember you have a stake in our work and a vested interest in the outcome, so do what you can to help.
Help us learn the language of your function, team or department. This will help us immerse ourselves in your world and its problems. It will make us understood. It also breeds confidence.
Be clear about what’s needed from us so we’re confident we’re delivering what is required and you’re confident we’re working on the right things in the right order.
Make your decisions based on the options we take time to prepare and present so we make better choices for the customer and the business. Always ask to see supporting data or evidence (see below).
Risk and Planning
Remind us of our past results on similar products and services, so we don’t make naive predictions and we accept the cumulative risk of something going awry is high. Provide oversight where needed.
Let the data decide — where we have it — and remind others we are not the user(s). Acknowledge it’s ok to make assumptions as long as we seek the data to validate these. Accept user research that might challenge your perceptions and understanding.
Ask how things are going out of interest. Be an active participant in demos and reviews, too. Show you want to know how things work.
We’ll help you identify, define and realise the business benefit you crave. In return, you’ll help us by providing expertise, feedback and support so we deliver value to the customer in the quickest time possible.
Problems, not solutions
Together, we act as proactive problem solvers; but first, we must fall in love with the problem. You provide as much context and detail around your problem and the benefit you seek as possible. This way, we are more likely to find the right solution later on.
Embrace cooperative conflict, so the problem becomes the opponent we must join together to defeat. We can then create mutual outcomes that consider all our needs and goals, so we both win.
Readiness to experiment
Resist the temptation for big bang releases as these are loaded with risk. Instead, let’s hedge; making small, frequent outcome-based bets which help us deliver value to customers quickly. And we learn about customer needs as we go.
You understand and share the feelings and needs of the customer, other stakeholders, and the team. We promise to remember empathy is a two-way street.
Work in the open
Everything we do is public and participatory — Slack, emails, docs, wikis, meetings. You make sure important information gets to the right people at the right time because this is key to building great products and services for customers. No sneaky back channels, no sir-ee.
Our work is always focused on achieving our business goals and you ensure we are aligned together in this pursuit.
We need to tap into your knowledge and your specialist skills so we make the best product or service possible. You help us understand the local landscape and its boundaries. You explain any policy or rules we need to know. Think as yourself as our guide on this journey.
Support and guidance
We share people, resources and data. You hold other stakeholders to account and help resolve conflict and align interests and priorities if needed. Together, we remove blockers, manage dependencies and mitigate risks.
We honour and protect information and we work together to make sure we communicate effectively. If you need more or less communication, just say, and remember we need to hear from you, too.
Requirements are prioritised based on maximising value to (internal and external) customers while minimising the cost to the business. The outcome we seek is an evolving roadmap which we use to manage and align all stakeholders with clearly defined features that move us closer to our product goal or vision.
Be whole-minded when listening to ideas, research, different ways of working, and hear what others have to say. This also builds trust, empathy and a more productive workplace.
We optimise the whole, not just individual functions or teams. This means we focus, laser-like, on what is best for the performance of the system as a whole.
You are happy to see safe-to-fail experiments because you know we’ll learn something new. You encourage diversity of thinking, seek feedback and critique of your ideas, help to legitimize differences between teams and people and find the common ground for robust decision-making.
You help us work within the budget and navigate any financial constraints. You’re the expert here, thank God.
This is the Stakeholder mindset IMHO. It’s tough gig, for sure!
Finally, this is not meant to be an exhaustive list — and I’d love to hear your suggestions, dear reader. You’d never expect a stakeholder to exhibit all of these things daily, just at one time or another. And these behaviours aren’t mutually exclusive; one act might cover many behaviours — think holistic, not atomistic.
Part two of this blog post will follow shortly. Here, I’ll highlight a few ways we can help and enable stakeholders to be good and do the right things. It would be rude not to, wouldn’t it?