Recoining Stakeholder Management to Stakeholder Relationships

Its no secret that Product Managers shoulder a large part of the responsibility for delivering products to market. However, they operate with limited authority over those that actually do most of the heavy Product Development lifting. This sometimes brings a range of people issues that stalls the Product Delivery process. One example is the difficulties Product Managers experience obtaining approvals for the product requirements or obtaining resources to help develop and test the product. In order to reduce some of these costly challenges, we’ve (Brainmates and Pockets of Brilliance , our trusty organisational psychologists) re-examined the concept of Stakeholder Management and re-coined the term to Stakeholder Relationships.

We’ve reasoned that ‘Management’ is an activity that should only be applied to tangible products and services, businesses, finances, data rather than people. Further, the term “Management” in relation to people is largely irrelevant to Product Managers as they rarely have a Delivery team that reports to them. For Product Managers, stakeholders are wide ranging. They can include both external stakeholders such as customers and suppliers, and internal stakeholders including engineers and CEOs. In many interactions, ‘Management’ is simply not an appropriate model for engagement because Product Managers interact outside the sphere of control. It would be a difficult proposition for example for Product Managers to manage the CEO.

Introducing the concept of “Relationships” into the process brings with it a different emotional response. It evokes trust, more meaningful, open communications and an authenticity. With this, comes the ability to collaborate towards achieving the desired outcomes. Product Managers who develop and nurture relationships during the Product Delivery process tend to overcome their lack of authority over those that are doing the work. The benefits to the project and consequently, the final product are enormous. Instead of being hampered by internal politicking, the whole Product Delivery team is focused on delivering the right solution that solves the customer’s problem(s). John Friedman writing in the Huffington Post goes further to say that Stakeholder Relationships is the key to a sustainable enterprise.

Whilst re-coining the term Management to Relationships appears almost arbitrary, in fact, it brings with it a whole new set of techniques and skills. Building effective ‘Relationships’ requires a connection with stakeholders that go beyond project objectives, meetings, project plans and emails. It requires what Seth Godin in his latest book, The Icarus Deception describes as emotional labour. He writes, “connection between people is always the result of emotional labour, not physical labour.” (p43) He goes on further to say that “connection involves a complex swap of information, expectation, and culture. It involves opening ourselves to others, creating vulnerable moments that frighten us.” (p44)

Most Product Managers may not be prepared to extend beyond the artificial connection with their stakeholders but those that do will find the benefits in projects without friction.