Building trust with stakeholders
There is nothing quite so humbling as jumping into a new project or stakeholder relationship full of energy and ready to execute on the product vision, then coming out of an initial meeting feeling as if stakeholders are alienated, there is no alignment on the next steps, and you have failed to establish the relationship needed for the partnership to thrive. What a nightmare! Why does this happen? How can you prevent this from happening again?
Product professionals need buy-in from a variety of stakeholders to be successful. With limited chances to make a good impression in software solution delivery, it is essential to foster connections quickly to be viewed as a valued partner. This article will offer guidance on how to mitigate potential rifts with stakeholders and considerations for building strong, long-standing partnerships and products.
Being a trusted product delivery partner
Good product delivery partners are highly effective within their specific disciplines (e.g., Product Management, Product Design, Engineering). Great product delivery partners are viewed as expert advisors. Most trusted advisors take a holistic approach to understanding business needs and problem-solving, rather than just focusing on tactical needs, augmenting internal teams, or building isolated features. Foresight and strategic mindset are key differentiators at the advisory level.
Trusted partners consider many variables beyond immediate technical tasks to deliver the right solution. The outcome? Value.
Some of the advanced skills that expert advisors bring into building high-value solutions include:
Transparency: Establish an open dialogue that supports constant adjustment, growth, and healthy debate.
Expertise: Provide expertise and mastery of the software development lifecycle by sharing past successes and failures to inform future choices with a seasoned team that doesn’t need additional training to generate valuable solutions.
Vision: Focus on building stable, long-term solutions—celebrating short-term wins along the way and having the foresight to anticipate future business needs.
Advice: Offer guidance to ensure a high-quality product is built. Trusted partners make strategic recommendations beyond the direct requirements provided. They also challenge decisions that could lead to a poor outcome, which can be uncomfortable at the moment, but ultimately leads to a better solution and a stronger relationship.
Fit: Prioritize the benefit to the business. Nothing should be built without considering the business value and the technical impact—no coding for coding’s sake.
These elements, taken in context through collaboration with stakeholders, eventually lead to more successful partnerships built on mutually aligned goals and trust.
Once you have clear partnership goals, how do you deliver them? What are some of the issues you might need to overcome? The following are obstacles and mitigations that drive the biggest impact on building trust and strong partnerships.
Obstacle 1: Insufficient buy-in from stakeholders
One of the keys to building superior solutions is realizing that understanding what you’re building isn't enough. You also need to understand the "who" and "why." It’s not just about connecting the build to end users, it is critically important to learn about the people involved with an organization and potential solutions, as well as the industry and technology to foster optimal collaboration. Conversely, creating a feeling that you are working against or ignoring your stakeholders' best interests can sabotage even the best of solutions.
Some considerations for engaging with stakeholders:
What motivates each stakeholder?
Is there alignment between stakeholders? Why or why not?
How does the success of the project impact them?
Who defers to whom (think outside the formal reporting structure)?
Who are the loudest voices?
Who has the most product knowledge?
Who has a vested interest in this initiative failing? Why?
How can I help each stakeholder win?
Keep in mind that the more you understand about your extended team, what is important to them, and how each person makes decisions, the better you will be able to predict behaviors, seek alignment, and drive smart product decisions. When collaborators feel heard and seen, they are much more likely to work with partners toward mutually agreeable outcomes.
Obstacle 2: Difficulties gaining domain knowledge
Many stakeholders already have deep industry-specific expertise, considerable information about what they are trying to accomplish, and significant context around potentially conflicting priorities or past attempts to solve the same problem. Not demonstrating a shared understanding of the domain can undermine your expertise or authority. At a minimum, everyone on a project is expected to understand the primary business goals and be able to describe the product and key users in a few sentences. As advisory consultants, we are also expected to become (or already be) experts in the solution, the process, and the stakeholder’s industry.
Knowledge gaps or lack of understanding damages trust and creates animosity between internal stakeholders and consulting partners. "Why should we listen to this person who knows nothing about what we do?" It is important to be humble, ask questions, and absorb relevant information as quickly as possible.
When working in a new industry or business area, gain more situational knowledge through:
Doing your homework in advance: Think of initial encounters like a job interview. Get to know the jargon. Familiarize yourself with the industry, competition, and business problems.
Knowing the audience: Get a list of people attending meetings and stakeholders ahead of time. Research them and tailor communications to attendees.
Reading the room (or web conference) and adjust if needed: If a communication path isn’t working, pivot to seek alignment.
Asking questions, lots of them: Showing curiosity builds mutual interest and informs the product. What are the goals of the initiative? What is driving them? How will we know when we have achieved success? Who will be using this tool? What are the pain points?
Focusing on the business' problems: It is important to get alignment on what your stakeholders want to solve before designing and guiding the product solution.
Rephrasing: Demonstrate understanding or clear up misalignment (see below).
Reviewing offline: Take time to revisit what you learned and supplement with additional research.
REMINDER: Keep asking questions. I cannot stress the value of and need for this enough. Continually ask questions to stay connected, ensure alignment, validate work in progress, etc., throughout the product lifecycle.
Even if you don’t walk into (or out of) a room knowing everything about your partner’s business, demonstrating that you are listening, learning, and applying those learnings to the solution roadmap will rapidly mitigate any perceived lack of domain expertise. These steps are crucial at the beginning of an engagement but useful throughout to ensure that you have continuous alignment, understanding of the goals, and can effectively guide tough decisions.
Obstacle 3: Leveraging prior experiences tactfully
Another challenge that experienced product professionals face is determining the right way to bring expertise from other projects or companies into the conversation. Bringing this knowledge to the table reinforces the depth of your expertise, highlights ideas that the stakeholders may not have considered, can help steer away from approaches that have previously failed, and often saves a significant amount of time.
If not done delicately, sharing recommendations or expertise can backfire. Negative impressions, such as the feeling that you aren’t listening or have a “one size fits all” mentality, misses like using an example that is not relevant to the current situation, or undermining the uniqueness of a business need can jeopardize trust or seem snide.
Here are some Do’s and Don’ts for offering guidance successfully:
Involve stakeholders when introducing information.
Have you considered…?
I think I have a story that might apply here.
I wonder if ____ might work in this situation?
Focus on what you learned and why it did/didn't work, not the solution itself.
Make sure all examples are relevant.
State presumptions about a solution before understanding the situation.
Alienate stakeholders with your lead-in by opening with:
Well, when I did this last time…
On my previous project…
You need to try…
My other clients/stakeholders…
In [YYYY], we solved this by…
Get too detailed about how a specific feature or solution was used unless it is a real fit (also helpful for ensuring confidentiality).
Obstacle 4: Challenges (re-)establishing alignment
The biggest remaining obstacle is misalignment. Work to gracefully identify the problem and seek a resolution. The most important thing to keep in mind once you detect a misalignment is that even if you do not perceive yourself to be the cause, you need to own seeking resolution.
The following sequence helps get realigned with multiple stakeholders:
1. Interrupt politely for clarity (e.g., "Excuse me for one moment…" "If I could, I’d like to ask a quick question?").
2. Acknowledge that you are simplifying or clarifying intentionally for understanding.
3. Repeat back a simple, high-level summary of the element being clarified before proceeding into greater detail.
4. If needed, validate the complexity of the source of the content (e.g., "Building on what so-and-so just said…," "I understand this is more complicated and am admittedly simplifying for mutual understanding…”)
5. Leverage tactful lead-ins, especially when dealing with differences of opinion rather than facts:
“So, if I understand correctly…”
“What I think I’m hearing is…”
“To summarize where we landed…”
“I believe we might have a misalignment. I'd like to clarify…"
6. Invite contributions, corrections, and additions.
7. Repeat until reaching a mutual understanding.
For more information on leveraging detailed prioritization for deeper tactical alignment, check out “Build successful products by aligning stakeholder and user needs.”
Practicing stakeholder management successfully
By building strong relationships, increasing your relevant domain knowledge, learning how to introduce prior experiences into your collaborations, and seeking realignment, you can mitigate common problems and ensure that you are positioned to be both an expert in your discipline and a trusted partner for your stakeholders in any situation. This trust enables healthy debate, the ability to collaborate effectively on tough decisions, deep insight into stakeholder needs, and ultimately higher-value software products.