If you have worked on a large engineering product, the odds are that you did not build it in isolation but in collaboration with colleagues from diverse domains. It’s common for software projects to involve product, business, marketing, design, analytics, customer support, end-users, and C-suite leaders. All of these people with a vested interest in the success of your product represent your stakeholders.
The tech industry is littered with numerous failed products from Amazon’s Fire phone to Google+. One of the common recurring reasons is poor stakeholder management and coordination.
Knowing who your stakeholders are, understanding their incentives and priorities, aligning their interests, getting buy-in, and leveraging their expertise is critical for the success of your product. Just one of the stakeholders being misaligned makes developing your product much harder, so it is imperative that you manage stakeholders from the conception to the launch of your product.
I have seen several products fail due to poor planning and management of stakeholders. In this article, I will provide some insights on effectively managing your stakeholders as an engineering leader.
Identifying Your Stakeholders
The first step is to identify the stakeholders that are critical to the success of your product, understand their motivation and priorities, and their relative importance and influence. Successful stakeholder management starts by mapping your stakeholders across several dimensions, including:
A stakeholder mapping exercise will help you identify the most important stakeholders during each phase of the product development lifecycle. This helps you later as you develop optimal strategies to balance the diverse perspectives of each stakeholder, manage any inevitable conflicts, and build unique communication methods for each one.
An important point that many articles on this topic omit is that stakeholder mapping is not static. It must be modified as individual stakeholders are replaced or reallocated to the project. For instance, if your VP of Product is replaced by a new one, the mapping has to be redrawn based on your new VP’s motivations and priorities. These will almost certainly affect your roadmap for any products under development.
Prioritizing Your Stakeholders
Every stakeholder contributes unique expertise that is pivotal for your product’s success, but their relative interest, importance, influence, and level of contribution varies across the product lifecycle. Using your stakeholder map, identify the most important stakeholders and engage them accordingly.
Remember that CXOs aren’t necessarily the most important stakeholders at every stage of a product’s development. For instance, while C-level business leaders are crucial for providing initial budget and sign-off, during the development phase, your product and design stakeholders are often more relevant.
Furthermore, if you lose touch with the end-users during the development phase, you might end up building a product missing features that customers want. I saw this recently when another engineering team started a new project.
After getting initial buy-in from leadership and validating the customers’ needs, the manager was replaced. Instead of re-assessing the team’s priorities and confirming stakeholder alignment, the team got out of sync with the deliverables that customers needed.
At the end of a year-long development cycle, they launched the product, but customers were no longer bought in. The team essentially lost a year’s worth of effort because they didn’t keep all the relevant stakeholders in mind throughout the development process.
While stakeholder mapping is a necessary first step, conflicting priorities amongst stakeholders are common and need to be resolved delicately.
You can preempt certain stakeholder conflicts by keeping conflicting interests in mind. Achieving multi-stakeholder alignment requires carefully planned discussions and negotiations to assess the lay of the land with each stakeholder. Focused group meetings prioritizing key points of disagreement or conflicting priorities can help you achieve alignment and avoid conflicts down the line.
Additionally, knowing which stakeholders are most likely to back your project through challenging times and which are likely to abandon you is important. Learn when to fight fires on your own and when to seek out more experienced mentors in your company to provide a different perspective.
The strategy for stakeholder alignment works differently in small startups than it does in large, multi-layered organizations. In a startup, speed of execution is critical while enterprise teams may have many layers of bureaucracy impeding velocity. Both have their challenges, but it’s important not to treat them the same.
Keeping Stakeholders Up to Date
After getting all the stakeholders aligned, you need a communication strategy to share updates on the project at set intervals. Tailor your communication plan according to the importance, expertise, and priorities of each stakeholder. For example, the project’s contributors might need a high-touch approach, while executives might just want periodic updates and high-level presentations.
There are several appropriate modes of communication apart from 1:1 meetings, especially now that so many teams are remote. At a minimum, you should maintain a project status board detailing the progress of each milestone, KPI, team member, and estimated timeline.
Popular software and tools that facilitate structured project management include:
While a project board might be enough for some stakeholders, others may want more explicit communication. As an engineering leader, be proactive about this communication, leveraging video conferencing and messaging tools to help keep stakeholders in the loop.
Finally, group status updates can be productive when addressing stakeholders who are too busy to read or watch pre-recorded videos. These meetings are especially helpful if you need signoff from several parties to proceed.
Engaging Stakeholders and Taking Feedback
During the execution phase of the project, continuous engagement and clear communication with your stakeholders is essential to maintain their interest and trust. Stakeholders are often involved in a multitude of projects, and your project may not be their top priority.
While giving stakeholders regular updates can help, it’s also helpful to get their buy-in or actively involve them in some parts of the project. As long as the key stakeholders are satisfied, there is less likelihood of difficult surprises down the road.
Often, stakeholders will express disappointment or frustration with your team’s work, rate of progress, or specific decisions related to product development. Feedback - both positive and negative - helps your team apprise their project status and course-correct accordingly, so first, evaluate the feedback to understand whether it’s valid or a simple miscommunication.
Leveraging your objective analysis will enable you to respond to the stakeholders’ concerns accordingly and manage their expectations better in the future. Whenever situations like this arise, follow up by bringing these stakeholders into decisions earlier and ensuring they have the information they need to suggest changes earlier.
Finally, use feedback as an opportunity to understand what contributes to stakeholder satisfaction with the project. There might be a new process you can implement to avoid similar misunderstandings on future projects.
Developing Your Stakeholder Management Skills
For new engineering leaders, the art of stakeholder management might take some time to master. If you feel like you’re struggling with it, find mentors (typically senior engineering leaders in your organization) and look into external professional training. Successful stakeholder management requires a host of soft skills, including communication, empathy, and persuasiveness.
“You need to be able to communicate and collaborate with other engineers who are working on different pieces of that system, as well as cross-functionally with product managers, designers, and others who are contributing to the design of the system that you’ll help implement.” - David Kaminsky, Senior Engineering Manager at StubHub
While some technical experts might dismiss the relevance of these skills when they’re in individual contributor roles, in my experience, the most successful engineering leaders combine strong technical acumen with excellent interpersonal skills.
The success of your software or engineering product depends on your ability to successfully collaborate with and manage cross-functional stakeholders across the entire product development lifecycle.
Identifying your key stakeholders and understanding their priorities lays the foundation for achieving strong cross-functional stakeholder alignment. This foundation can be further cemented with smart communication strategies and tools to keep your stakeholders abreast of the progress and vested in the success of your product.
Stakeholder management is not a new topic, but no two managers do it the same way. You have to incorporate your context, industry, and strengths to find a set of practices that work for you.
Copyright © 2022, Sundeep Teki
All rights reserved. No part of these articles may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the author.
This is a personal blog. Any views or opinions represented in this blog are personal and belong solely to the blog owner and do not represent those of people, institutions or organizations that the owner may or may not be associated with in professional or personal capacity, unless explicitly stated.