In this blog post, we revisit an episode of Mindset in which Singapore-based Tamara Moona, Associate Director of Product at Pivotal Labs, and Priscilla Nu, Head of Digital Experience and Design at SP Group, share their advice on developing organisational alignment and tackling issues with stakeholders.
Product practice is relatively new in many regions around the world, leading to misunderstandings and a failure to understand the value a product manager can contribute to an organisation. As a result, it can be challenging for those with product management roles to achieve alignment with stakeholders on goals and outcomes.
Even in organisations where product practice is well established, organisational alignment and stakeholder management are considered two of the most common challenges faced by product managers today.
In fact, preliminary data from our ongoing Mind the Product survey – The State of Product Management, shows that people in product management roles around the world face the following principal challenges:
- Organisational alignment – 23%
- The business understanding the value of product – 20%
- Stakeholder management – 12%
So, what’s the best course of action if you work in an organisation where product management is still finding its place and these issues are prevalent?
For Tamara, it’s all about education. “A lot of organisations know that they have to work in new ways, but aren’t sure what those new ways really are,” she says. “Inspired product managers will go out and try to educate themselves independently – thinking in terms of the objectives and outcomes.”
The challenge, she explains, is then to communicate those learnings back to your team. You can do this even if your leadership is not aligned. “As a product manager, you can make sure that it’s clear to the designers, the engineers, and the stakeholders by explaining – here are the problems we want to solve and here are the types of outcomes that we want to see.”
Vet your Company
For Priscilla, organisational alignment is an issue you can start to understand before you join a company. She recommends digging into objectives during the hiring process by asking different people what the business objectives at the company are.
“For me, this is a good indicator that they’re all aligned,” she says. “If, for example, you’re talking to a lead engineer and they’re not telling you something different to the CEO, this gives you a good indication that they’re clear about an objective.
“You can also think about getting into the mindset of an investor, asking the questions they would ask to evaluate whether this company is set for success or not.”
This, she says, is a great way to think as a prospective employee in order to check for organisational alignment and to ensure you’re not walking into a team or organisation that’s unclear about its direction.
Once alignment is established you’ll want to ensure that you can maintain it as time goes on. One way to achieve this is through regular discussions, perhaps once a quarter, even in the form of a goals alignment workshop, to ensure there’s the opportunity to have free, open, and transparent discussions about goals.
“The key to this is making sure that you have the right stakeholders in the room at the time,” says Priscilla, “the people who can actually influence decisions.” This, she explains, helps to maintain the right engagement throughout the product development lifecycle.
At the same time, Priscilla says it’s important to consider this process as an opportunity to engage your team and stakeholders early in the product lifecycle, enabling them to support the vision they’ve helped to create, and ensuring that the product gets out the door.
Alignment sessions will help people to understand the issues and their respective roles better. They require questions to be asked, answers to be listened to, and feedback to be given, both from the internal team and other stakeholders.
If this process is new to your organisation, be aware that it may take some time for stakeholders to adapt. Initially, you might notice that people worry about having the right answers or feel that their work is exposed. As a product manager, it’s your responsibility to facilitate these meetings or workshops in a safe space so that everyone feels comfortable and confident to participate. You’re likely to get more buy-in once stakeholders start to see the value such meetings can bring.
Another way to check-in and manage alignment is via one-on-one meetings.
“By meeting with individual stakeholders one-on-one you can get a sense of the problems they are facing and what objectives they are meeting for that year,” says Priscilla. “Then it comes down to empathy. You need to know who you’re talking to and how to approach that relationship.”
To make these conversations a success, Priscilla recommends you think about the person you’re talking to and to consider the best approach for them. For example, if you’re talking to someone very task-oriented you can perhaps get straight to business, discussing the relevant objectives from the get-go. However, if you’re talking to someone who’s more people-oriented – it’s not a bad idea to approach that conversation with a more personal touch. This can be as simple as asking, “how’s your day going?”.
“Mirror the person that you’re talking to,” she says. “Find out what problems they’re trying to solve and try to get a real understanding. That way you can ensure the alignment is there right from the beginning.”
Recognising the fears of the people you’re talking to is important too. “The way that teams work now means we’re often decentralising decision making,” adds Tamara, who explains that this can make stakeholders feel as though they no longer have the power that they once had.
By conducting stakeholder interviews you can help your team to understand what’s important, as well as bringing their concerns to light.
Fear of Stakeholder Anger
Conversations with stakeholders can be challenging, even downright terrifying, at times. If your relationship with your stakeholders is tricky then there are simple things you can do to reduce conflict.
“We like to use generic terms like, ‘stakeholder management’ and ‘my boss’, but your boss is an individual, a human being,” says Priscilla. Empathising with what your boss is trying to solve, she explains, and understanding the position that they are in is all user experience. “It will help to drive the conversation further if you come from a place of empathy.”
Try to recognise that your manager is on a journey of their own. They might be new to management or, like you, figuring out how to deal with the situation in the best way. Nine times out of 10, if a manager is applying pressure it’s usually because they’re experiencing pressure from above. In situations of heightened tension or conflict, showing empathy can ensure that both people in the conversation can achieve common ground. Always try to understand where the other person is coming from and the position they’re in.
Priscilla recommends thinking about the following things:
- What working style does your manager have?
- What kind of information do they need to make a decision?
- What’s the best way to present that information to them?
- How can you tailor your working style to work more harmoniously with them?
“With my team, I find it’s helpful to write a ”Manager Read Me'”, says Priscilla, “a simple document outlining how best to work with me. I publish it for my whole team.” This, she explains, forms part of a two-way conversation about working style and is supported by meeting with team members in-person to build a strong relationship.
Create Your ‘Manual of Me’
Tamara also agrees with the idea of a ‘Manual of Me‘. It’s an easy way, she says, to say, “this is who I am, here’s how I want to be spoken to, or here’s how I feel comfortable.”
In yours, you might include statements such as:
- The environments in which I thrive have…
- The best way to give me feedback is…
- People might misunderstand me when…
- I do my best work when…
Providing feedback is important too, as Tamara explains. “As an employee, you have a voice. Giving feedback to leaders or to anyone who puts you in a difficult situation is important because they may not really realise how they’re making you feel.”
Sometimes, she explains we might assume that this behaviour is intentional or even personal. However, the reality is often that there are things going on behind the scenes that you don’t see. The behaviour isn’t intentional at all, and in most cases, they won’t even realise how they’ve come across.
“Try not to ignite the situation,” recommends Tamara, “then, remember the values that are important to you and your company. Be kind, be empathetic, and try to respond in that way,” she says. “If the situation becomes particularly difficult, try to pause it and then resume it at a better time.”
In product management, there tend to be two types of micromanagers. The first is those who are rarely seen but who like to “swoop and poop”. These stakeholders will simply drop by, poop all over everything, and then leave again for several weeks or months at a time.
The polar opposite is the micromanager you can’t escape from. The one pawing through your backlog and picking through every feature. If you’re experiencing either one of these stakeholders ask this question – ”what are they missing?”. Perhaps it’s an issue of trust or a lack of information.
If it’s the latter, consider what it is they’re trying to find that they don’t feel that they have access to. Their behaviour might be due to a lack of visibility that you can provide to give them confidence. You might need to ask them what information it is they would like to see to feel confident or even to politely ask for more responsibility in order for them to let go.
“I’ve been told by someone to say, ‘Hey, I want to take on more responsibility. I know you play this role typically, but I want to learn more and do more’,” says Tamara.
Verbalising this intention can help to flip the script and create space to be able to build trust.
When it’s Just bad Management
Of course, not everyone is a great manager, and there may come a time where you feel you’ve tried everything but are still experiencing all the same problems.
Priscilla suggests that if you’re meeting your manager’s objectives and they’re still micromanaging you, the issue might be one of working style. “You should ask yourself if you can adapt to their style if they’re not going to change,” she says.
If the answer to this question is no, you have a decision to make. Do you stick around and make do, or do you move on? Of course, not everyone can move from company to company, but it is important to have an intention about your own career. Think about the growth you want, the types of responsibility you want to have, how you want to work, and how you want the organisation you work for to respond to that. Ensure that you’re in a space where you can grow and develop.
“Treat your career as a product. If you tried so many things and it’s not changing, just move on. Move to a better company, move to a better manager,” says Priscilla. “Sometimes, people get so stuck in the role and on working on relationships that are simply not working. The time is wasted.”
- Stuck in the Middle: Mastering Stakeholder Management by Emily Tate
- Collaborative Alignment – the ‘Auftragsklärung’ framework
- Justify Your Product Decisions and Get Stakeholder Buy-in by Teresa Torres
- Stakeholders, let ‘em in – Rosemary King
- Top Tips for Negotiating With Stakeholders
- Keeping Your Stakeholder Relationships in CREDiT