guest blogger product management

Identifying Stakeholders for Product Success

Guest Post by: Inis Hormann (Mentee, Session 11, The Product Mentor) [Paired with Mentor, Paul Hurwitz]

Product Managers (PM) need to effectively communicate product vision, strategic roadmaps and concepts to a variety of different stakeholders through the different stages of the product life cycle. The challenge is identifying to share project and product updates with whom because stakeholders can change over the life of a product. For a better product and a smoother decision-making process, it is important to get clarity on product stakeholders very early in the project. As different stakeholders have different priorities and expectations for the product. A deep understanding of your stakeholders could be crucial for your product success or failure. 

As described above it is worth investing time and effort to understand for each new project who has a stake and whom to manage closely or others to just to keep informed.  A tool to support product managers is stakeholder identification and how this results in a stakeholder map.

Firstly, who is a stakeholder for the product? This is any person inside or outside your organization who has an interest in the product, its success and can influence a product related decision. Stakeholders are impacted by the product indirectly or directly. 

Secondly, when should you spend time to identify stakeholders?  Looking at a start-up company maybe there is no need to do a detailed stakeholder map as the product manager usually is well connected and already has update meetings on a regular basis with all relevant stakeholders like the CEO or VP of commercial operations. Sometimes, in smaller businesses, PMs can achieve what they need with writing user personas or user profiles and doing stakeholder mapping is not necessary. But when an organization grows and becomes larger it could be more challenging for PMs to have regular sessions with the relevant stakeholders. PMs often own the communication process around a product life cycle and need to make sure to have all relevant people in the loop of their communications especially in the product development process which requires approvals from the respective stakeholders.

Identification of stakeholders could be challenging and is not always considered as standard work for PMs, but it should be standard in order  to plan for the products success and align the product development cycle with the organization’s goals regularly.

Maybe you have already experienced large meetings with a lot of people who are considered stakeholders which results in managing complex communications due to the number attendees (20-25+). In these cases, a clear list of stakeholders gives PMs the opportunity to set up a core and extended team for more effective meetings and having the right people in the meeting rather than wasting the time of additional attendees. A small group helps to explain the situation to your stakeholders and leads to better communications in both directions.

Thirdly, what are the downstream benefits of having clarity on your product stakeholders? Communicating effectively and getting approvals from the right key stakeholder will help to speed up the project and supports the allocation of resources where needed. For PMs having check-ins with the right people is key to building consent and getting approvals for moving forward in the right direction fast.

For example, in a product development project it is recommended to get alignment on the problem statement early on, followed by alignment on the suggested business solution and lastly get alignment on the product solution. As the organization should have consent from the stakeholders on all three critical steps it is of value to have full transparency whom to ask for approval to bring a product to market as it will make your product process significantly smoother. 

Identifying stakeholders – the process to identify your true stakeholders.

1.    Step – Classification of project team: A good practice is to start with splitting  all your collaborators in your project into the following. This may help help to reduce your 20+ person meetings into small group meetings of under 10 people only.

  •  Facilitators: Collaborators who are facilitating the project such as project managers, people who will support a PM having easy access to the executive board or helping with the management of meetings.
  •  People working on the project: People who are working hands-on in the project such as a software developer, product manager, QA testers or technicians.
  • Stakeholders: These are all people having a stake in the product as described in the first paragraph and they could be internal or external stakeholders such as users, customers and VP or C-level executives .
  • Key stakeholders: Personnel who have the highest grade of authority and interests in the product. These are decision makers. 

2.    Step – Deep dive: Distinguish between Stakeholder and Key stakeholder

  • Review the list of all people from the project team, and when you classify each one, it is the next step to focus on the group classified as stakeholders and key stakeholders. Focus on the list of people with a stakeholder and key stakeholder role in the project.
  • Write their names down and than ask yourself, who couldn’t sleep well when this project fails? This should be a very limited number of stakeholders (5-8) and is the key question to get answered by PMs for a successful product. 
  • The communication channel to key stakeholders should be always open and having the highest grade of attention through the whole product life cycle. 

When your product progresses the stakeholders and key stakeholders are changing. For example in the early phases of development the CTO will more likely have the role of a key stakeholder, in the phase of commercialisation eventually the Commercial leadership team will require significantly more regular check-ins and support from the PM to adjust the tasks around the product effectively. 

The key to your success is to identify your key stakeholders and define their personal success matrix early on. In the ideal world the assessment would be performed in an series of interviews with all your listed stakeholders, to understand their thinking about the following questions:

  • How do you define the success of this product?
  • What does success look like for you in 6 and 12 months from now?
  • What is your stake in this product?

There are various ways to collect this information and bring it in an adequate format. The lesson learned is in particular to have all relevant information in the stakeholder map to always be able to quickly understand why the person is considered as your key stakeholder in the project and to have the key information from the interviews in a small stakeholder note which could be stacked on your stakeholder map at the office wall or in a digital format. An example below.

FIGURE 1: Stakeholder note.

The end of your stakeholder identification is a simple stakeholder map in an Authority-Interest Matrix

After identifying stakeholders, the next hurdle is to create a stakeholder map. A stakeholder map can have different visualizations but a common one is an Authority-Interest Matrix.

Stakeholders are mapped by their level of authority vs their level of interest in the product. A lesson learned here is to ask yourself if the person with the highest grade of authority and interest is really the person who will not sleep if the project fails. The reason why this is valuable is that this small group of people will need to be managed by the PM closely and most of the efforts should go into the careful and time intense management of their needs. 

Below an example of an authority-interest matrix. An authority-interest matrix drives the PM in how to manage these stakeholders, but can only be done after you identify them.

FIGURE 2: Authority-Interest Matrix

Visualization of your key stakeholders in regards to their authority and interest in the product and how the level of authority and interest will guide the PM to the management of them.

Last but not least it could be supportive to have a visual stakeholder map in the PMs office to make sure all relevant information for stakeholders is easy to find. It gives some more visibility in the day-to-day business. But what is more important and 80% of the time should be allocated to this, is to do a proper identification of stakeholders, so the PM will have the right people in the loop at all times for their communications.

To clearly understand the stake of each stakeholder including their definition of success will give the PM valuable key criteria for prioritization of their own job. In particular when the stakeholder shares with the PM expected timelines, revenue targets or how they see the product is fitting into the company’s strategy. All this key information should be reflected in a stakeholder note (example FIGURE 1). The aim in the PMs stakeholder interviews should be to get all information about their stake and the way how they define success for the product. Success criteria will help PMs to assess their own performance against the targets everyday. 

During the interviews the PM should get a feeling for the 6 to 12 months success matrix of each of the various stakeholders. But in order for the product to be successful and aligned with the stakeholder goals it is worthwhile to add a reassessment in particular of the success matrix after 6 and 12 months from now to your key stakeholders as a minimum as the success matrix could change over time.

About Inis Hormann

Inis is a biologist by education who transferred from science to sales over market development into a product manager role 3 years ago. From her base in Germany she is supporting health care professionals globally to provide those in need with faster and more accurate laboratory test results. She is driven by delivering the right products to market which make a difference to patient’s life globally every day.

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