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3 best practices for building stakeholder alignment as a product leader

3 best practices for building stakeholder alignment as a product leader

Product leaders who create strong alignment within their organizations build more successful products and deliver those products to market, faster.

But earning trust and buy-in for your roadmap is an uphill battle. Product managers must build tactical alignment not only amongst their immediate team but across the organization to help sales, marketing, and other adjacent departments do their jobs better.

The problem? Priorities aren’t always aligned. Stakeholders each bring their own agenda to the table, and the larger your organization, the steeper a hill you must climb.

As a product leader, you’re in a unique position to manage a broad cross-section of stakeholders. The earlier you can create alignment and get everyone on the same page, the smoother all your product operations will be down the line.

Why is it so important to integrate and align stakeholders around the product management process?

Every department has a distinct function, and every stakeholder has different day-to-day priorities. But everyone from sales and marketing to support and finance shares one thing in common: they rely on the work your group is doing to complete their job:

  • Marketing needs to plan campaigns around upcoming features
  • Support needs to understand how new features work before they receive calls from customers
  • Operations might be forced to hire staff to manually process tasks and avoid breaching regulations

If stakeholders are not aligned around the core principles of a problem or strategy early in the process, each of these downstream decisions creates organizational tension, slowing delivery and increasing the likelihood of delivering the wrong product or feature to market.

Let’s say your team follows the agile principle of iterative development. Instead of splashy feature launches, your team favors small experiments, fast launches, and under-the-hood improvements. This might be a great approach for the end-user—but the agile philosophy might not jive with those from other departments.

  • Without new features around which to build campaigns, marketing will struggle to differentiate the product from competitors and attract new customers
  • Without open lines of communication on product updates, success managers end up scrambling to support customers whenever a problem arises
  • Without a clear sense of the product roadmap, sales staff cannot comprehend why their key customers’ features cannot be implemented right now

Building alignment also becomes more difficult as an organization grows. More decision-makers mean exponentially slower decisions and reduced responsiveness. But what hurts your organization the most is the loss of a customer-centric focus. Decisions are made reactively, prioritizing avoiding risk and delivering on internal metrics over providing the best products to drive customer growth.

3 best practices for building stakeholder alignment as a product leader

The good news? Building alignment within your organization doesn’t have to be a struggle. Following a few best practices—some of which we embrace here at Productboard, some of which we’ve observed in successful startups and enterprises—can help you bring alignment to your organization and deliver better products to market, faster.

1. Start small by integrating stakeholders into your existing planning

Nearly one-third of product teams have no regular communication with customer-facing teams—but building alignment doesn’t mean adding even more meetings, documents, and tools to your existing workflow. Start by inviting collaborators into your existing planning and documentation meetings and carve out specific times for them to contribute. 

In smaller startups—under, say, 50 people—you should review your product roadmap with key stakeholders on a monthly basis. Share updates on progress from the prior month, review priorities and requests for the upcoming month, and, if you have too many things to complete, you can discuss what to focus on alongside your stakeholders.

If you’re part of a larger organization, start by looking at the different departments in your company that are stakeholders of your work. Reach out to a senior manager or department head for each group. Let them know you’d love to have someone from their team be more involved in product planning, spending a couple of hours a month working closely with them on product prioritization and roadmapping. Here at Productboard, we bring sales, customer support, and success representatives into the quarterly planning process and listen to the top patterns they’re seeing. We use Productboard to collect that feedback and in-person sessions with each department to double-check that we didn’t miss anything crucial.

If you already have a working relationship with someone specific on their team, feel free to ask for them by name, but avoid creating conflict by reaching out directly to that person without managerial approval. Either way, be sure to position your pitch as a value-add for them, not simply another burden on their time. 

“We want to make sure your voices are represented in the planning process. In order to do that, we have to be hearing your voices.”

At first, stakeholders may only be able to contribute their own perspective instead of the wider goals of their department. That’s OK. By creating space within your existing processes not just to share your updates with the wider organization, but also to make sure people are being heard, you’ll avoid situations where people feel like one department—most often, product—is “above” others.

2. Grow by shaping your organization around product goals

As stakeholders become used to the idea of being more involved, you can begin adding a more formal structure to these unofficial discussions. I know what you’re thinking—another painful reorg. But building cross-functional teams doesn’t mean Jane from Marketing has to report to you now. 

Instead, we suggest creating cross-functional engineering, product, and design “circles” centered around which part of the product is being worked on, a common goal, or even customer personas. Inside Productboard, we call these cross-functional teams product groups, but we’ve seen other companies call them tribes, domains, or pillars. Try to keep each group to around 25-50 total team members to avoid complexity—a good rule of thumb is if you can take those people and put them in a new building, they’d be fully self-sufficient to innovate for their customers.

When rolling out product strategy, it is really important to get explicit buy-in on the plan from the various parties. Each group should include representatives from departments outside of Engineering and Product whose work impacts (or is impacted by) the product —from marketing and customer success to finance or legal, depending on your business. Think, who are the top 3-5 stakeholders that you want deeply involved in the planning and review of the product roadmap.

Product groups should meet regularly with these stakeholders—at least once a month—to share updates on their area of the product and gather feedback from stakeholders. At Productboard, we hold monthly group meetings between product directors and department directors — both groups get equal facetime, but product leadership is mostly there to share and listen.

Take sales, for example. A group meeting might involve the product team sharing progress against quarterly plans with sales stakeholders, while the sales team might share red flags they’re seeing across deals. That feedback can then be funneled back into the roadmapping process and other tactical discussions. 

Here at Productboard, we plan regular “roadshows” with the various groups to talk through the strategy, contextualize it for them, and take questions in smaller groups where people will be more likely to ask questions. In these meetings, we share the same presentation and information as we share with executives. Roadshows are a great way to meet folks and understand what is top of mind for them. Every person in the company gets the same access to the best information that the executives have, and as a bonus, it saves us time on developing different presentations for different groups.

Maintaining a regular cadence of open discussions at the group level helps those inside each team understand their mission, while stakeholders have regular opportunities to stay up-to-date and share feedback and insights on their goals.

3. Supplement discussions with transparent tooling

What about in-between meetings, though? What if a stakeholder has a question about the status of a request, but your next group meeting isn’t for weeks?

That’s where a tool like Productboard can help. Capturing insights from key stakeholders in one place helps you discover new opportunities that you can bring to the table in the next meeting. Each piece of feedback includes details on who submitted it, making it easy to call on stakeholders to share further information during the next group meeting (and avoids the need for them to remember details for weeks on end).

Stakeholders can also check on your product roadmap at any time. You can see whether they’re looking at the roadmap (and how often), letting you tailor your conversations to their perspective rather than spending time explaining every detail. And if you do find yourself managing conflicting priorities and troublesome stakeholders, you can quickly walk them through the rationale behind your decisions and explain how the chosen prioritization helps deliver against your agreed strategy.

One important caveat: even the best tooling is no substitute for in-person discussions. Use your roadmap and stakeholder feedback as a catalyst for questions and discussions, not a black hole of information capture.

Start small and build consistency over time

Building alignment as a product leader isn’t easy. It takes a careful balance of implementing the right processes and meetings, building trust with cross-functional leaders, and giving staff the space to be heard.

If your organization isn’t used to working this way, that’s OK. You don’t need to roll everything out at once. Start small by inviting stakeholders into your existing processes, find what works for your organization, and build consistency. Over time, you’ll begin reaping the benefits of faster delivery, more valuable products—and happier customers and stakeholders.

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