How to Deal with Unresponsive Stakeholders

As Marty Cagan puts it, managing stakeholders is probably the least favorite part of our job as Product Managers. It is, however, something we need to constantly keep on our radar, specially those of us working for larger organizations.

stakeholder is any individual or group that can affect or is affected by your project or product. By this definition, the product’s end users are also stakeholders. However, in the context of product teams, the term usually refers to the internal side of the organization.

We’re talking about people or groups whose buy-in and collaboration are essential to make certain things happen: executives, sales, finance, legal, marketing, etc. They have a vested interest in the outcome of what you’re working on and can potentially veto it.

You need their input, approval of key decisions, or maybe you just don’t want to piss them off by not making them feel included along the process. Either way, it’s a minefield you have to tread carefully.

Out of the huge number of things that might come up, one I hear a lot goes something like this: “For our next product release, we have to work with a critical stakeholderbut he’s always busy and unresponsive; we can’t force him to give us the input we need, and all of this is very frustrating.”

The cause: Attention Asymmetry

This sort of situation is caused by what I like to call attention asymmetry. Your concerns about your team, product, and market occupy most of your attention, since they’re at the core of what you do; for most stakeholders, your product and team are simply a fraction of what they need to worry about — their attention is mostly focused elsewhere.

In other words, the stakeholder is proportionally way more important to you than you are to him or her. This reality is hardly ever going to change, so what can you do to make sure you still ship on time?

Reducing the Asymmetry

Step 1: Talking

The first thing to try is simply to talk. Avoid email — the power of face to face conversations is outstanding. Setup a meeting. It should be all about explaining the stakeholder how important they are to the product and to its next release. It is not about how much you need them or how they’ve become a bottleneck for your team. It’s a subtle difference, but asking people to participate on something because they’re important gets way better results than asking them to solve someone else’s problems.

Talking in a less formal context such as lunch works great. It can help you get more attention from your stakeholder, as they won’t be squeezing in 15 minutes “between meetings” (which also means “between my real concerns.”) Having them out of their usual work environment to talk about something that is also outside their regular responsibilities creates the necessary “mental break”, providing the opportunity for a better connection and conversation.

Remember to listen first. Relate. Invest in your relationship with the stakeholder and it will pay off manyfold down the road. Understand how they feel and how busy they actually are so you can determine the most effective way to get their contribution.

Step 2: Making decisions easier for them

Being mindful of the small attention span stakeholders have for you and your product, will make you stop sending them 20-page specs and asking for their feedback. Empathy isn’t reserved just for UX and Design Thinking; just like any other person you interact with, your stakeholders also deserve it. Help them help you:

  • Think about what you really need from them and break it down so it’s easier to process;
  • Present them with options and the pros and cons of each;
  • Suggest the ones you think may be the best solutions (and why.)

In order to do this, one of the most useful things I got from my enterprise consulting days is something called the Minto Pyramid Principle. It’s used in dressed-up, serious, management consulting firms, but don’t let that deter you — it’s really helpful.

The basic idea is that your present your idea backwards: starting from the conclusion and supporting it in increasing levels of detail. You create a logical argument pyramid that’s easy to follow (and to bail out from.) Journalists have also used a similar structure for decades. If someone’s too busy, they will have already gotten your main argument first, which is enough most of the time. Here’s an introductory resource on the Minto Pyramid Principle to get you started.

Finally, pick the most effective medium to present this information to your stakeholder. It may vary depending on your organization’s culture and what the person responds to the best. Presentation slides, 1 page memos or emails can all work. Test what works and what doesn’t. Iterate.

Step 3: Getting them to let you decide

When someone’s chronically busy and none of the previous steps are helping in making things move forward, we begin to approach the danger zone (where there’s potential for conflict.)

I’ve found that when stakeholders realize they can’t participate with the engagement level they’re expected to be participating, they will often be open to letting you take their place. That is, they are willing to delegate their decision-making power to you, as long as they’re kept in the loop. This is particularly true if you already have a good, trusting relationship with them.

This step is suboptimal for many reasons, the first being that you’re adding to your own workload. Also, this undermines the stakeholder’s position within the organization, which is not good for them. Finally, you may not have the full skill-set to fully replace them on your own, leading you to either do the best you can or find other people to help you do it. If you reach this point, and get their consent, it may be the best way to move things forward.

Here’s the prototypical conversation that has worked for me in the past when trying to get to this position:

Hey,

I’ve noticed you’ve been super busy recently and have a lot going on. I guess all the stuff I keep asking of you isn’t really helping. Thing is, our team really needs to move forward on X now, or we risk not being able to ship this release. Would it be OK with you if I went ahead and <did something other person was supposed to do>? I would of course keep you in the loop at all times, but I figured this solution would help both you and me. What do you think?

Having a talk along these lines usually leads to good results because it is framed as beneficial for both parties. And this is all true, by the way. You’re not being manipulative or overreaching. This is the sort of conversation you have after a period of really trying to get the other person to contribute and you end up in a place where you need to help them (and yourself.)

Step 4: Scaling it up

If all previous steps have failed and your deadline is looming, you’ve reached the end of the line of what is within your control.

It’s time to step it up. First, you need to have a final conversation with the stakeholder. The actual tone you take depends on your relationship and your own personality, but if there’s ever a time to be blunt, it’s now:

Hey,

I’m sorry to insist on this, but I really need you to do X. It has become a bottleneck for our release, and if we don’t get it by <some date>, we won’t be able to ship. Giving the risk this represents, I might need to step this issue to <someone higher up>. So, do you think it’s possible for you to do it?

However you play this (very tough) discussion, you need to get to a firm Yes or No. People may try to please you or feel pressured to do it, but you should really read them to understand if that’s the case and whether there’s a risk they won’t follow through. At any rate, if you haven’t yet, it’s time to start managing expectations up above.

This final step is the true danger zone. Every organization is different and you may be lucky to work at a no-bullshit place, which is great — honesty and openness are great conflict-avoiders. Anyways, here are some points you should keep in mind at this stage:

  • Try not getting caught up in office politics and unnecessary arguments;
  • Be really careful to people’s sensibilities and try to navigate that — let them save face;
  • Remind yourself that you’ve done everything you can so far;
  • Above anything else, don’t enter the blaming game — stay positive, be creative and work on alternative scenarios in which  you can still ship what you need.

Your team is not in a vacuum

Over time, you and your team create a shared history and vision. You know the product’s every detail (and how it got there), you get to know each other well and are deeply aware of everyone’s strengths and weaknesses. When you get there, being part of such a great team is an awesome feeling. You feel confident about building anything you need.

On the other hand, it’s probably impossible to create product teams with absolute autonomy. If you accept this statement, the direct consequence is to realize that you will always need to work with people outside your team to get stuff done.

As soon as you step out of your team, you face an alien world. Even when there aren’t big cultural differences between departments and teams, dealing with people outside your everyday circle can feel like a drag. This is, of course, an illusion. Although you may find lots of what feel like horrendously inefficient practices and workflows in the teams with whom you interact, you don’t know their history and the reasons that led them there.

Attention asymmetry is everywhere and no one is immune to it. By being conscious of this, we’ll be able to truly be empathic towards the stakeholders we work with, and we’ll become much more effective as Product Managers.

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