PRODUCTHEAD: How to influence stakeholders

PRODUCTHEAD: How to influence stakeholders

PRODUCTHEAD is a regular newsletter of product management goodness,
curated by Jock Busuttil.

i am citizen product


Use empathy to appreciate the context, needs and pain points of your stakeholders

Understanding people’s social style helps you influence stakeholders more effectively

You can use different modes of persuasion to craft a more compelling argument

Picking the right time to make your point can amplify your persuasiveness

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Of all the topics in product management that come up in discussion, the one that’s most common and has no easy fix, framework or template is how to influence stakeholders.

People stuff #

Many new product managers I’ve spoken to have been surprised by the amount of ‘people stuff’ product management involves. People are messy, complex, emotional and occasionally irrational. Product management is hard because there is so much ‘people stuff’.

The people stuff can involve figuring out what people actually need (versus what they’re asking for), resolving a conflict of philosophies in your delivery team, or trying to reconcile the subtly different takes on company strategy by different stakeholders. The technology side of the product is almost the easy bit in comparison. Get the people stuff right, and everything will fall into place. Get it wrong, and everything is going to be an uphill struggle.

Stakeholders can make or break your product #

In particular, stakeholders make or break your product. (People sometime define stakeholders more broadly, but for the purposes of this article, they’re people inside your organisation who have a positive or negative influence on your team’s ability to deliver the product.) Stakeholders are often influential people in your organisation, and typically have responsibility for a particular functional area of operation.

They have a vested interest in your product because it affects their area of operation in one way or another. As a consequence, they can often be vocal about their desired direction for the product. If your plan for the product aligns well with their needs, they will be great allies. If not, they will be a constant thorn in your side.

Or at least, this binary ‘for or against’ is how stakeholders are often characterised. I would argue that lazy characterisation is partly responsible for the challenges in persuading and influencing stakeholders.

Understanding why stakeholders are not aligned #

Think about how organisations are typically structured, particularly as they grow a bit larger. In a small startup, people are more likely to roll up their sleeves and help out across functions. As the organisation grows, more specialism is introduced, headed up by a dedicated head of function. HR or talent is often one of the first as the growing organisation needs to recruit in a more structured and scalable manner.

The organisation continues to expand, and so more of these more formalised departments spring up. The senior management team starts to evaluate the performance of each of these departments (“How can we market / develop / recruit more effectively for their cost?”) and creates targets and incentives for the department heads in order to encourage the desired change in behaviour.

A conflict of interest #

The problem with this approach is that it can easily lead to a conflict of interest between different departments. Poorly designed incentives and ill thought-out goals can discourage collaboration between departments. “We have a challenging target this year,” the reasoning goes, “so we need to prioritise work that directly helps us reach it. We don’t have the time or capacity to help out other departments.”

You can sometimes see this manifesting when each department head appears to have their own — and subtly conflicting — interpretation of corporate strategy. It’s natural they will each interpret the plan in a way that aligns with their respective goals for each department.

What this misses is that it should be the other way around: each department should instead be shaping their plans and restructuring their teams to help the company work through its broader strategy. (Admittedly, this problem can be exacerbated when the corporate strategy itself is a bit woolly, vague or chasing too many things.)

It’s no wonder, then, that each stakeholder wants your product to serve their needs first and foremost. They’re simply evaluating their assigned targets and incentives and see your product as a means to help them achieve those goals — with minimal additional effort from their own department.

This is an important point to note: stakeholders naturally have their own agenda because the organisation has encouraged that behaviour by its incentives and structure. Understanding the pressures facing your stakeholders is a vital step towards uncovering their actual needs.

Caught in the middle of a tug-of-war #

And so the product manager is caught in the middle of these stakeholders who, to varying degrees, will use their department’s influence to help or hinder your efforts in order to get what they believe they want. The effectiveness of the corporate goals at aligning the departments will determine the extent to which you are pulled in different directions by different stakeholders.

We often speak of product management as being a balancing act between the needs of users and the needs of the business. Aside from the basic business need to deliver a product that sustains itself financially and ideally turns a profit, these business needs are mostly what your stakeholders are asking you to do (or not do) with your product.

You can’t please all of the people all of the time #

Sometimes product managers mistakenly believe that their job is to achieve consensus. It’s not. Attempting to satisfy everyone’s needs, desires and points of view will lead to a muddled mess of an outcome that is at best mediocre, and at worst unsuitable for all.

Instead, product management is a constant process of prioritisation and filtering. We will do these things, in this order, and not these things. (Until we learn something new that necessitates a change in approach.)

Inevitably this means that some people will be pleased with what you do, and others will not. This is not to say that you can push forward blindly with broadly unpopular decisions. While you won’t be able to please everyone all of the time, you should at least try to minimise the number of people who won’t like what you’re doing.

When you need to persuade stakeholders #

We’ve looked at how your appreciation of the context that’s driving a particular stakeholder request will help you to understand the underlying need. We then find ourselves having to convince stakeholders to support our chosen course of action.

Clearly, we don’t need to do much to convince the stakeholders that see the benefits of a particular product change to their own team. Sometimes we need to convince stakeholders that a product change will benefit them, even if it’s not immediately apparent to them. This is where understanding their context, needs and pain points will help you. You could put together an empathy map for each stakeholder.

The most tricky situation is when a product change (or a decision not to change the product) will adversely affect a stakeholder. Unless that stakeholder is particularly good at seeing the big picture, you’re realistically not going to be able to convince them to support that decision. The best you can hope for is that they don’t actively oppose the decision.

To negotiate that outcome, you’ll again need a solid understanding of their context.

Instead of the thing they want now, is there something else you can offer that you know they need?

Or are you planning to deliver the thing they want at a later stage? (Beware of making promises you can’t keep. It’s better to say no for now than to string people along.)

Can you show them why the thing they want is not something you’re going to deliver? Perhaps it would be a distraction from the stated corporate strategy. Maybe it’s impractical to deliver within the constraints of the existing product. Or maybe there are larger or more urgent opportunities you need to tackle first, of which the stakeholder may not be aware.

Social styles #

You understand your stakeholder’s context and you’ve gathered your best arguments and evidence to persuade them. But how are you going to make your point?

One piece of the puzzle is to understand the stakeholder’s social style. In the 1960s, industrial psychologists David Merrill and Roger Reid explored how people behave in social situations. They came up with a model of four behavioural types you’ll probably find familiar:

David Merill and Roger Reid’s four social styles (Credit: Mike Clayton / Management Pocketbooks)

Many management techniques have built on Merrill and Reid’s work. The articles and books I’ve gathered for you below provide more detail.

Understanding the social style of your stakeholder lets you adapt how you make your point. For example, someone who is more assertive and task-oriented (a “driver” in Merrill and Reid’s terms) will probably respond better if you dispense with the verbose explanation and get straight to the point. In contrast, an “expressive” will likely be more attuned to the emotional aspects of your argument.

Modes of persuasion #

Related to this are the ways you can persuade people. In Rhetoric Aristotle establishes three modes of persuasion, plus a way to strengthen your persuasive effect:

Ethos — this is when someone uses their reputation, social standing or authority on a topic to be more persuasive. Related to this is the halo effect, when we are more easily persuaded by a source we believe (rightly or wrongly) to have greater authority on a topic.

Pathos — this when we speak in a way that appeals to emotion in the listener. It’s both about creating emotion (“Look how frustrated our users are about this!”) and about causing a change in emotion (“I know this is infuriating, but we need to take a step back and look at this calmly and rationally.”).

Logos — this is about using logic, facts and reasoning in our arguments. As I’m sure you’ve experienced, not everyone looks at things rationally and logically. Beware of “alternative facts”.

Kairos — this is about amplifying your persuasiveness by picking the right time and right mode of persuasion to make your point. In other words, it’s all about understanding how people are feeling when you make your point, and choosing an approach based on context.

I like to remind product managers not to waste a good crisis. Your patient plea to devote more time and effort to automating product testing will probably carry more weight in the midst of a massive quality control snafu.

Final thoughts #

Persuading people, whether stakeholders or otherwise, starts with understanding them as people. Then you make your point in a way they’ll be most receptive to, without misleading them. You won’t always be successful, but you’ll stand a better chance of succeeding if you employ your empathy superpower.

For you this week #

To elaborate on the themes I’ve written about this week, I’ve gathered together a collection of articles and books that explain more of the background, and provide tips on how you can influence stakeholders more effectively.

Speak to you soon,


I’ve included an affiliate link to Amazon this week, meaning I would receive a small commission were you to purchase the book.

what to think about this week

David Merrill & Roger Reid: social styles

In the early 1960s, two industrial psychologists, David Merrill and Roger Reid wanted to understand whether they could predict managerial, leadership and sales performance. To do this, they explored how people behave in social situations. They chose not to concern themselves with why.

Starting with BF Skinner’s ideas of behaviourism and James Taylor’s structured list of behavioural descriptions, Merrill and Reid discovered that people’s behaviour follows two continua, which they labelled: assertiveness and responsiveness.

“The you that’s on display”

[Mike Clayton / Management Pocketbooks]

Personality and persuasion

Developing an understanding of personality traits, thinking styles and learning preferences is a very useful way to improve our knowledge of behaviour, what motivates others and why it is sometimes necessary to adapt our individual style when trying to communicate effectively with others.

Most of us have the capacity to recognise different styles but often fail to see the position from anything other than our own.

How to persuade different personality types

[Luan de Burgh / de Burgh Group]

Ethos, pathos, logos, kairos: the modes of persuasion and how to use them

Ethos, pathos, logos, and kairos all stem from rhetoric—that is, speaking and writing effectively. You might find the concepts in courses on rhetoric, psychology, English, or in just about any other field!

The concepts of ethos, pathos, logos, and kairos are also called the modes of persuasion, ethical strategies, or rhetorical appeals. They have a lot of different applications ranging from everyday interactions with others to big political speeches to effective advertising.

How to persuade in different ways

[Melissa Brinks / PrepScholar]

Personal Styles & Effective Performance

Merrill’s approach emphasizes the interrelationships between behavior and social style-encouraging students to consider how their own actions influence responsiveness from others.

Those actions tend to be rooted in one of four primary social styles: Analytical, Amiable, Driving, and Expressive—which readers are invited to compare and contrast with their own styles, as a starting point for potential improvement.

Distinguishing between personality and behavioral styles

[David Merrill and Roger Reid]

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The Practitioner's Guide to Product Management book cover

The Practitioner's Guide To Product Management

by Jock Busuttil

“This is a great book for Product Managers or those considering a career in Product Management.”

— Lyndsay Denton

Jock Busuttil is a product management and leadership coach, product leader and author. He has spent over two decades working with technology companies to improve their product management practices, from startups to multinationals. In 2012 Jock founded Product People Limited, which provides product management consultancy, coaching and training. Its clients include BBC, University of Cambridge, Ometria, Prolific and the UK’s Ministry of Justice and Government Digital Service (GDS). Jock holds a master’s degree in Classics from the University of Cambridge. He is the author of the popular book The Practitioner’s Guide To Product Management, which was published in January 2015 by Grand Central Publishing in the US and Piatkus in the UK. He writes the blog I Manage Products and weekly product management newsletter PRODUCTHEAD. You can find him on Mastodon, X (formerly Twitter) and LinkedIn.

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