From time to time, when I talk to other software product managers about their biggest challenge, they often say that managing internal stakeholder expectations is their biggest challenge. Yes, of course. After all, product management is like herding cats. Sales goes and makes promises to customers without asking the product group, marketing wants their projects done first, your development team has their own pet projects, customer support wants customer’s burning issues fixed first, professional services want projects that will make them do implementations faster. And all of this needs to be done in a short time with limited engineering resources.
So is there a way to manage these expectations and make sure there is a clear product direction? I have been using Product Council meetings to successfully do this. Product council is a concept I picked up from Marty Cagan’s Inspired: How To Create Products Customers Love book. I strongly recommend this book to all product managers.
So what exactly is a product council meeting and how do you run it?
Product council is a meeting with the executive management (including the CEO) once a month to review the product strategy and the product roadmap and resolve any conflicting product priorities that are currently in play. You as the product manager or head of product management should run this. This way, everything is presented in an impartial way and the whole group is presented with the projects that the product and engineering team is currently working on and need to work on in the future. If there are conflicting priorities, you present the pros and cons of the priorities and ask for a resolution from the product council. Make sure that the stakeholders whose priorities are creating the conflict are in the meeting. Be clear that you want a resolution at the end of the meeting (not afterwards) because the product team needs to start working on the right project(s) based on the decision. Force a decision by the end of the meeting.
I often hold these meetings once a month for an hour. It is a standing meeting that is on every stakeholder’s calendar. The agenda is typically the following:
- Review the product strategy
- Update since the last product council (what have we done since then)
- What are we currently working on?
- What is ahead of us?
- Review product roadmap
- Presentation of any conflicting priorities
- Final decision on prioritization
It is important that you as the product manager or as head of product management help the executive management see the conflicts and lead them through a prioritization exercise. Once a decision is reached, there should be consensus from all stakeholders because it is an educated decision made based on review of pros and cons of each priority and more importantly facts (instead of someone’s opinion or support for pet projects).
So are you done after product council? No. You have to make sure that you keep the product council abreast of progress being made on the new priorities. If the project hits a bottleneck because of some unforeseen technical or business related reason, you need to immediately raise it to the product council rather than waiting till the next meeting. Communication is key to managing stakeholder expectations. If you do this well, you should be able to effectively reduce your stress level as a product manager.
Thoughts? How are you as a software product manager managing stakeholder expectations?
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