How Product Owner

should work with key stakeholders?

Victoria Sheer
Product Owner, Trainer, Mentor and a certified ICF coach.
If you want to be a Product Owner of an empowered team, not a feature delivery team, learning how to deal with business stakeholders is a key. For an empowered product team business stakeholders are not clients, who tell them what to do, but nevertheless they are out of most importance as a source of information. It is one of the key responsibilities of a PO to understand stakeholders’ constraints and to deliver accordingly. Therefore, PO should establish a good collaboration with them.  Remember, that the job of the PO by Marty Cagan is to “solve the problems they are asked to solve, in the ways that the customers love, yet that work for the business”.
First step in managing stakeholders is identifying those. 
Second step is stakeholder analysis, for example by interest and power. 
Then follow stakeholder engagement plan and engagement itself.
The most common definition of stakeholders is “people with an interest or concern in the product”. As you can see, this definition is quite broad, and a PO should decide till what level of interest and influence they actually want to analyze and why.  
In this article I want to concentrate on how a PO should work with key stakeholders. Who are the key stakeholders we want to involve the most? This is an important question, because of course, we want to keep interested people involved, However PO doesn’t have the time to manage all those relationships with the same intensity. Identifying the key stakeholders is therefore so important. PO should first identify people with real veto power on their product roadmap e.g. C-level management, business partners, people responsible for company budget, legal department, key investors. Basically, anyone who has the power to decide on the project budget should be in this category along with those who could stop the project or divert project resources. Those people PO should always keep updated and even involved in the product development to enhance their understanding and commitment. 

Should only stakeholders with veto power be considered as key stakeholders? I would say no, since some of the stakeholders, with or without veto power, will have the needed expertise to develop the product. But PO doesn’t have to partner with all of those, some of those can be just consulted and updated. My advice would be if you don’t know what to choose: to partner or to consult, go for consulting. It is always easier to involve them more afterwards than to have too many partners from the start. Building relationships is an important part of a PO work and knowing when to involve the right stakeholders and how is crucial. 

To conclude I would like to state, that PO is still the product vision and backlog owner, therefore they should not transform in a pure project manager or facilitator. Rather Product Owner should understand the core of their product and speak with the stakeholders the same language to understand their constraints.

Building a relationship with stakeholders takes a lot of time and effort and you cannt start building just when you need it. It is a long process with a lot of investment that might not pay off. But this is the only way if you want to success as a PO of an empowered team in the company. 

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