How To Manage Stakeholders When Changing Product Strategy

Practical Tips for Managing Expectations

One of the biggest challenges product leaders face is convincing leadership of changes in product strategy. In addition, setting the proper expectations with leadership is a key element for managing your stakeholders.

If you're moving your company from the innovation stage towards the optimization stage (or vice versa), there's a lot of stakeholder management that needs to be done. How do you prevent company leaders from wanting to do too much and create focus?

This is one of the most challenging questions. There will always be pressure from above in an organization to do more, especially in times of change.

In terms of managing change, it’s first critical to establish the narrative for why you are moving from an innovation focus to a growth/optimization focus. If you can clearly present to leadership that you have product-market fit and stickiness of customers, that’s a strong justification for more focus or resources on the growth side of the equation. Continual innovation without investment in growing the user base doesn’t lead to a great outcome for the business.

Beyond this, though, it’s key to be clear and specific about what the product and technology teams can actually accomplish in any given period.

I think the best way that I generally explain this to people or management in companies is:

  1. There's always limited resources

  2. There’s also always a long list of work (and it’s always more work than the team can do at any one time)

  3. Therefore, we have to make choices and be honest about what we are and are not going to commit to doing within a given period

Rather than pretending that we're going to do everything on the list, I would rather instead be honest upfront. I recommend the following strategy for your team/s:

  1. Create the list of things your team/s can actually commit to and that are the highest priority for the business at this stage. This is the list of things that are actually going to happen. You should be honest with yourself about your actual capacity. You should also experience pain in creating this list - there should be things you decide not to do that are hard to give up.

  2. Follow up with a list of work that is not happening in the time period. There should be important items on this list, such as the CEO’s pet project, an important initiative that is still lower priority than other items, or a feature users are asking for but that doesn’t fit the product at this stage. This list should also create some pain because actual trade-offs were made.

  3. If the executive or leadership team disagrees, make it clear that changing priorities between the lists is OK, but there needs to be a conversation about what’s staying above and below the line. You can’t just add more above the line without moving something below.

One of the things I like to say in companies is there's a whole lot of things that we can do. It's not whether we can do them, it's whether we should do them. Any team is good enough to build anything in theory. But what really you should be asking yourself is "Should I be doing these things? Is this the right list of work that's going to achieve the goals that we have?"

And if you're still getting push-back from above, what I've usually done is:

  1. Create a framework where you’re very clear what features or areas leadership think are important.

  2. Next, come to agreement that there will be a planning process (quarterly or annual preferred).

  3. Use that framework to agree that these are the things you’re going to work on this quarter. That enables you to ask leadership what they want to change. Which of the things below the line would you prefer to add and what would you de-prioritize based on this? The key here is creating the pain of a trade-off, as I mentioned earlier. Without there being some pain to decision making and prioritization, it’s too easy for leadership or your management to just ask you to do everything and set unrealistic expectations.

The key to all of this is setting clear expectations. With clear expectations, managing stakeholders becomes easier. Also, as you start to get consistent on delivery, your stakeholders begin to believe your projections for work and they start to manage their expectations accordingly.