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How do you use data-driven narratives to align stakeholders?

by Sam Henick
September 28, 2018

In large organizations, building a great product takes even more than an acute focus on customers, exhaustive research to pain points, and continuous experimentation. To be successful, you also need to get stakeholder buy-in throughout the process. That’s why being able to tell compelling data-driven narratives is a critical aspect of product management.

We recently hosted a webinar in partnership with H2R Product Science on the topic of aligning stakeholders around data-driven narratives. Panelists included Basil Shariff, Customer Success Manager at Alpha with a decade of market research experience at Toyota and other organizations; Holly Hester-Reilly, Founder and CEO of H2R Product Science and a former product leader at Shutterstock and MediaMath; and Adam Wright, a consultant with H2R Product Science who has previously held product roles at high-growth startups like Yelp, Airbnb, and Breather.

The panel discussed a number of best practices, including how to communicate with key stakeholders from any team, how to identify and navigate stakeholder objectives, priorities, and skepticism, and how to create and share more compelling data-driven narratives.

Below are key takeaways and a recording of the webinar.



Give engineers the time and freedom to explore

Making products takes time, and nobody knows this better than the engineering team. Instead of presenting product requests as a diktat from above, product managers ought to cultivate a culture of collaboration. As Hester-Reilly puts it: “whether you’ve been on this team for a long time or you’re new to the team, if you’re going to try to build a better product, you have to build the trust for the collaborative work, and so you need to transition the mindset.”

Accordingly, product managers need to shift the emphasis in production requests from speed to value added and to fully consider the “maker schedule.” As a result of these shifts, engineers should feel more autonomous and empowered. After all, engineers are just as motivated as anyone else in the company to make a good product to serve their end users. Sharing success stories can thus also drive the engineering team towards the shared outcome and cultivate a stronger sense of partnership.

You have a role to play in the popularity contest

Leadership, whether it be of a big or small company, is uniformly focused on company metrics and goals. And for good reason: they are responsible for their company’s bottom line and for presenting results to shareholders. Wright argues that it is “really important to consider this lens” as a product manager.

By doing so, product managers can overcome the four major challenges executives may pose.

Don’t let the name fool you; the fantastical-sounding Game of Thrones scenario is all too real for many product managers: each person has his or her own agenda, and they are ruthlessly fighting for the throne in the form of budgets, hires, etc. Building “alliances” and voicing and resolving objections as soon as they arise are crucial to avoiding a descent reminiscent of Westeros.

When chaos reigns in the decision-making spaces, it is often the loudest person in the room who gets to make the decisions. This can be the person in the most dominant physical position or with the deepest timbre in the room, usually someone who seemingly earned their place at the head of the table as a veteran of some sorts. But instead of falling into the trap of listening to the most charismatic, product managers can enact a more democratic decision-making process by brainstorming with sticky note sessions, where everyone has a voice. When there is an articulated diversity of thought, the whole company benefits.

Problems may also arise when executives come in with what Wright dubs the “Preconceived Solution Syndrome.” Similar to when executives propose imitating competitors based on limited research, well-meaning executives may have a good idea that is not based on actual user needs. Instead of disagreeing on the spot, product managers should test a prototype of the idea and generate quantitative and qualitative data.

As Hester-Reilly notes, when companies need to kill features, product managers should identify the stakeholders in love with new idea and should share their findings throughout the data discovery process. This way stakeholders are not blindsided by a report months after the proposal, and with constant updates, it is easier both for stakeholders and their egos to accept. By explaining how the stakeholder’s idea was insightful and highlighting what the product team learned from the data analysis, they afford stakeholders the opportunity to save face.

Frame all communications from the listener’s perspective

Shariff walked attendees through numerous best practices with regard to communication and aligning stakeholders around better decisions. He emphasized the importance of recurring correspondence as a means by which product managers can establish trust by illustrating continuous progress.

“The key is to tailor the communication to the stakeholder’s priorities. It’s their update not yours,” Shariff explained. “So if you’re sending an update to a sales leader, it has to be relevant to their goals. How are you helping them hit their numbers this quarter? Don’t overload them with information they don’t need – at most, include reference links where they can learn more on their own.”

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Sam Henick

Sam is a marketing analyst at Alpha, where he focuses on best practices for product management in the digital age.

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