So, you’re feeling pretty good about your product discovery habits.
You are interviewing customers, iterating on prototypes, running sound experiments, and your team is gaining confidence that you are on a path to reach your desired outcome. It feels like you’ve reached product team nirvana.
There’s only one problem. You shared your progress with your boss and she wants you to consider her favorite solution. It’s a neat idea, but you can’t match it up with a customer need. It’s starting to feel like your discovery efforts were all for naught. So much for product team nirvana.
We’ve all been there. There’s a reason why the HiPPO acronym (the Highest Paid Person’s Opinion) is so common in our industry. Everyone has an opinion about what we should build and it’s hard to win opinion battles with people higher in the corporate hierarchy than us.
Everyone has an opinion about what we should build and it’s hard to win opinion battles with people higher in the corporate hierarchy than us. – Tweet This
In this scenario, the person with a differing opinion is your boss. But it just as easily could have been your CEO, your sales team, your CFO, or insert your favorite key stakeholder.
So how do we avoid the HiPPO pitfall and manage stakeholders that are more senior to us?
The Cold, Hard Reality of Managing Stakeholders More Senior to Us
I want you to imagine that you are having a discussion with the President of the United States about the conflict in Syria. (This is a hypothetical scenario—feel free to to imagine any President’s reaction, not necessarily the current one’s.) You are discussing what the United States should do. You are adamant that the U.S. should withdraw and the President is adamant that the U.S. should stay and support our allies. Do you think you have a chance to influence the President?
Assuming that you are a product person and not an international relations expert, I’m going to go with no. In this case, the President has more information on the topic, has access to more senior experts, and has the authority to make the decision. Why should he listen to you?
The only way you have any influence in this situation is to bring new information to the President that he doesn’t already have access to. Your opinion alone isn’t going to carry any weight here.
I’m guessing that most of you agree with this assessment. Most of us wouldn’t presume to influence the President on foreign affairs.
But we do presume that our opinion will carry weight when we are talking to people more senior to us in our own organizations. We want our boss to take our recommendation. We expect our CEO to trust us. We want to own our product decisions. But we shouldn’t.
That last paragraph might make you bristle. I know for much of my product management career I had a hard time with this. I wanted to be heard. I wanted to be trusted. I wanted to make the decisions. But the reality is, organizations rely on the corporate hierarchy to make decisions. The more senior you are, the more decisions you get to make.
We like to believe that our organizations are democracies and that our opinion matters. After all, isn’t that why our organization pays us? Let me be crystal clear here: Organizations are not democracies. They are hierarchies. People more senior than you will listen to your opinion only if it is convenient for them. As soon as they disagree with your opinion, your opinion is no longer convenient and they will rely on the hierarchy to disregard your opinion. This doesn’t make them a jerk or stupid. We all do it. It’s the reality of working in a hierarchical organization.
Organizations are not democracies. They are hierarchies. People more senior than you will listen to your opinion only if it is convenient for them. – Tweet This
Don’t Engage in Opinion Battles When Managing Stakeholders
Just as in the Syria debate, you aren’t going to influence the President with your opinion, you also aren’t going to influence your boss or any other key stakeholder who is more senior to you, if you rely on your opinion alone.
The more senior stakeholder has more expertise than you do. They have access to more senior experts than you do. And they have the authority to make the decision over you.
The only way to influence a more senior stakeholder is to bring new information to the table.
The only way to influence a more senior stakeholder is to bring new information to the table. – Tweet This
Don’t waste time fretting over whether or not you should be able to make the decision. Don’t get caught up in needing to be heard or wanting to be trusted. Don’t frame the argument as a measure of your self worth. It’s not a measure of your self worth. Your boss isn’t ignoring your opinion because your opinion isn’t valuable; your boss is ignoring your opinion because she can. That’s the nature of power in a hierarchy.
You aren’t going to change the power dynamics of the corporate hierarchy. Don’t waste time trying to change it. Accept it as reality and work within those constraints.
Don’t waste time wishing the power dynamics of organizational hierarchies were different. Accept it as reality and work within those constraints. – Tweet This
Instead of fighting for the right to make the decision, bring your senior stakeholders the information they need to make a better decision. Influence by bringing new information to the table.
Thankfully, if you are doing good discovery work, you should have plenty of new information to bring to the table. Share what you are learning in your customer interviews, summarize the feedback from your prototype tests, communicate the results of your product experiments.
But be careful. You have to remember that your stakeholders are busy people. Their span of control is wider than yours. So you need to help them digest what they need to know quickly.
Don’t Overwhelm Your Stakeholders with Everything All at Once
I worked with a team this spring who did great discovery work, but struggled to have it influence their product decisions. Their leaders wanted to dictate what the team built and every time the team shared research the leaders pushed back.
The team shared the conclusions they drew from their customer interviews and prototype tests. The leaders shared their own conclusions from talking with customers themselves. It quickly turned into an opinion battle rather than an exploration of what they learned. And we’ve already learned the team has no chance in a battle of opinion with their leaders.
What went wrong? The team made a common mistake. They knew their stakeholders were busy so they updated their stakeholders after they finished their research, after they drew their conclusions.
However, when we only share our conclusions, we aren’t bringing our stakeholders along with us. We are communicating our research findings as truth without preparing our stakeholders for that truth. We also aren’t giving them a chance to integrate their knowledge and expertise when interpreting the findings. We aren’t allowing our leaders to co-create research conclusions with us.
And remember, our leaders have access to information we don’t have. They have access to experts that we don’t have. And they have more experience than we do. We want to leverage all of that when we draw our conclusions.
I recently argued in “Stop Validating and Start Co-Creating” that we need to co-create with customers. We also need to co-create with our stakeholders. We need to get their feedback early and often, long before we draw our final conclusions.
We need to co-create with our stakeholders, getting their feedback early and often, long before we draw our final conclusions. – Tweet This
Do Share Your Work (And Get Buy In) Every Step of the Way
Your stakeholders can’t attend every customer interview. They can’t watch every unmoderated user testing video. They don’t have time to sketch ideas and participate in your design studios. But that doesn’t mean they can’t follow along as you discover what to build next.
You learned the key to managing stakeholders in high school algebra. Don’t worry, it has nothing to do with math. The key to managing stakeholders is to show your work. Don’t start with your conclusions: Share every step of the way with your stakeholders. But do it in a way that’s easy for them to digest.
- Synthesize what you are learning into a customer journey map or experience map. Maps are a great way to quickly understand rich context. Share and get feedback from your stakeholders. Ask them, “What’s missing? What would you add? What would you change?”
- Share interview snapshots (one-page visual summaries of what you are learning in each interview). When you hear something that’s inconsistent with what’s considered an organizational truth, explore it with your stakeholders. Invite them to be curious with you. For example, Amazon has a strong belief and company value that they offer the lowest price. If you were interviewing a customer who complained that they frequently found lower prices elsewhere, this would be a great interview to start to share with stakeholders to help them question whether you are really living up to this belief or value.
- Use an opportunity solution tree to chart your path toward your desired outcome. Use the tree structure to walk your stakeholders through your key decisions. Help them understand why you chose one opportunity over another. Show them the set of solutions you are exploring. Ask them to question your thinking. Encourage them to add the opportunities they are hearing about or to contribute their own solution ideas.
It can be uncomfortable to show your work. When we show our work, we are inviting feedback. We all think we want feedback, but feedback is uncomfortable. We delay sharing our work until we’ve drawn our conclusions, because we don’t want people to question our conclusions. But all this leads to is the dreaded opinion battle.
The good news is, the more you show your work, the more comfortable you will get with feedback. You’ll learn to love it when your leaders question your thinking. You’ll learn how to integrate their feedback and expertise. And your product will be better for it.
Remember These Tips When Managing Stakeholders
- Favor short, frequent updates over long, infrequent updates. Business stakeholders have their own jobs to do. Don’t require them to attend a two-hour meeting. Give them short bursts at a time. Get them excited about what you are doing. Use these updates to build and keep momentum.
- Be visual: Canvases, maps, and trees are becoming popular for a reason. Visuals help us think. They help us communicate a lot of information quickly. Your leaders are busy. Be thoughtful about how, what, and when you communicate your progress.
- Integrate the feedback you get: This sounds obvious, but if you ask for feedback and then ignore it, you are not only wasting your (and their) time, but you are also losing trust. You have to earn the right to keep getting feedback. The best way to do that is to integrate what you heard into the next product iteration. You don’t have to integrate everything you hear, but if nothing changes, the conversation was a waste of everyone’s time.
- Get feedback one on one: Too often we try to save time by updating our stakeholders all at once. But this is a rookie mistake. In a group setting, one person’s strong opinion can derail the whole group. It’s hard to truly understand someone’s concerns when the conversation bounces from person to person. Meet with your stakeholders one at a time. This might feel less efficient, but it will save you time over the long run.
It’s not enough to do good discovery work. We also need to do the work to share what we are learning with our stakeholders. Product teams need to earn the right to make better product decisions. The best way to do that is to show your work and give your leaders access to new information they can’t get anywhere else.
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