People often ask me what makes or breaks product management. It’s a complex question, largely dependent on context, but one thing that consistently leads to failure is poor communication.
The sheer diversity of stakeholders you have to engage with is a challenge for any PM. It’s unlikely that you’ll have the capacity to fulfill all their requests, which means managing expectations and prioritizing effectively becomes crucial.
In one of my early roles as a product manager, I found myself overwhelmed trying to handle all the requests from various stakeholders, so I made the ill-advised decision to try and do a little bit of everything for everyone. In trying to please everyone, I ended up pleasing no one.
The situation became untenable, and it was clear that change was necessary. Otherwise, I would be forced to look for another job. This is where stakeholder mapping came into play.
Table of contents
What is stakeholder mapping?
Stakeholder mapping is a simple method for understanding your stakeholders’ landscape, including their level of power, interests, and attitude toward your product or initiative.
There are various ways to create a stakeholder map. You can design a high-level one that encompasses the entire product spectrum or opt for a more focused approach that zeroes in on current initiatives. Your specific context plays a significant role here.
A comprehensive stakeholder map provides an overview of your stakeholders and identifies areas where relationship-building may be needed. However, this might not address your immediate challenges. For instance, improving relations with an influential but skeptical stakeholder who isn’t involved in your current project won’t help you now — though it could benefit future initiatives.
On the other hand, creating a stakeholder map specifically for an important project or initiative can help you tackle pressing issues. This approach is more actionable and typically where I recommend starting.
In the long run, both types of stakeholder maps are beneficial but it’s worth considering what needs attention now versus later. Prioritization is key to making progress.
Why is stakeholder mapping important?
People and collaboration are crucial to product creation. However, the dynamics can be complex, and lumping everything together can lead to confusion.
Not all stakeholders are the same. For instance, while working in ecommerce, I was tasked with accelerating partner growth to increase offers in our shop. We decided to enable partners to self-board, but this introduced complexity.
The interests, influence, and attitudes of our stakeholders varied significantly. What an account manager wanted didn’t align with the needs of operations, while branding and category management had their own unique perspectives.
One might think that the easiest solution would be to gather everyone in a room and let them hash it out. But that approach would fall short of effective product management. A more thoughtful method involves creating a stakeholder map to understand the dynamics at play and then deciding on the next steps.
Stakeholder mapping template
In 1991, Aubrey L. Mendelow developed stakeholder mapping as a tool to help teams determine how to interact with various stakeholder categories. Despite being over three decades old, this template remains relevant today.
Below is a modern stakeholder mapping template that I’ve adapted:
Powerful stakeholders have the ability to halt your initiative at any time or influence someone else who could do so. For instance, your company’s CEO is a powerful stakeholder, whereas a business analyst has less power.
Interest can be more nuanced. Some stakeholders may have a vested interest in your product or initiative for financial reasons. Perhaps their bonus depends on your product’s performance. Or, maybe your product directly impacts their work. For example, the marketing team will be highly interested in new features because they can use them to engage with audiences, advertise, and drive traction.
Let’s examine each quadrant:
- Keep informed — These are powerful internal stakeholders who aren’t particularly interested in your project but should be kept up to date on progress and results
- Keep satisfied — These stakeholders are both powerful and interested in your product. Collaboration with them is essential
- Ignore — These individuals lack power and interest in your product. Identifying them helps you determine who not to focus on
- Keep involved — While these stakeholders may lack power, they’re highly interested in your initiative and can help drive progress because they value what you’re doing
While these quadrants provide a useful overview of your stakeholders and how best to collaborate with them, one element is missing: attitude. Some people will support you while others may oppose you — it’s important to identify these individuals and strategize how best to engage with them.
To visualize each internal stakeholder’s attitude, I use color coding:
Once you have a matrix like this one, you can start considering immediate actions based on it. In this example:
- I’d speak with Josef to understand his concerns and devise actions that could win him over
- Peter is skeptical despite being interested and powerful; it would be beneficial to understand his skepticism
- I’d converse with Harold about his position with the aim of moving him towards neutrality
You can download a free template here.
Returning to my initial story, I felt I was on the brink of losing my job due to poor stakeholder management. To overcome this, I decided to map the stakeholders. But I couldn’t do it alone, so I enlisted the help of other product managers.
I chose to focus on the quarterly goals and map the related stakeholders. Together with two other product managers, we pragmatically positioned the stakeholders into the matrix, reflecting on their attitudes and adjusting accordingly.
The result is as follows (real names have been omitted):
As we crafted the mapping, it became clear that improving relationships was paramount. I couldn’t afford to have influential stakeholders working against us or interested stakeholders doing the same. So, I came up with the following actions:
- Have one-on-one meetings with all stakeholders working against us to identify their reasons
- Convince influential stakeholders with positive attitudes to share their motivations with others to provide different perspectives
After these one-on-one meetings, I understood that such stakeholders had been with the company for a long time and were tired of unfulfilled promises and repeated failures. For them, maintaining the status quo was preferable to investing their energy into something unproductive.
By categorizing the stakeholders, my life became easier. I knew where to direct my energy for fruitful results and who required less time in managing expectations or could even be ignored.
Now that we’ve explored what stakeholder mapping is and how it can be applied, let’s explore some best practices. These tips will help you get the most out of your stakeholder mapping efforts and ensure that your approach is effective and efficient:
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- Keep it alive — Stakeholder mapping is an evolving artifact. Start with something and review it at least every month
- Avoid group thinking — Mapping stakeholders in a group can lead to suboptimal results. The example where I created the matrix with other product managers led to group thinking traps because some product managers followed others instead of reflecting on their own objective perspective
- Maximize different perspectives — Invite different people to create a mapping alone and then share their results with others. This can help identify conflicts and facilitate discussions about them
- Take action — Commit to a few actions aimed at developing relationships. A stakeholder matrix without action is useless
- Don’t lump all stakeholders together. This will create more confusion than you can handle
- Stakeholder mapping isn’t a solution in itself. Rather, it’s a means to an end
- The goal is to identify potential problems so you can act quickly and get results
- Focus on resolving relationship issues because this enables you to create value faster