Advice for Stakeholder management

November 2021, updated January 2022

In my blog post on "How to Deliver Business Impact with Data", I share my strategy for successful kick-off calls with prospective (internal or external) clients, where at the end of the call you’re on the same page and know where to go next. The blog ends with recommendations on next steps, including having check-ins in place.

Now that you’ve landed your client -- or that coveted data product -- what can you do to make sure it’s a success? Or, if the kick-off call (or a check-in) didn’t go as expected, what can you do?

The biggest pain point when it comes to developing data products is -- not data! -- but cross-team alignment, whether that’s around communication styles, priorities, deadlines, deliverables, something else, or all of the above.

There are many resources out there on how to “manage up” (and sideways -- and across), including:

Having collaborated with many stakeholders over the years, the #1 thing that I’ve found that works for me, to get myself and my collaborators (back) on the same page throughout the data product development lifecycle -- is to understand my stakeholder/collaborator’s preferred communication style, i.e. how they prefer to receive and share information. What does this look like in practice?

Challenge 1: Stakeholder not Replying to your Questions

Symptom: Not understanding communication style of your collaborator -- and you're reaching out in a way that either is not resonating with them -- or it's not the most convenient for them.

TL;DR Solution: Just ask! You can frame it as “it will help us collaborate better”-- which it will.

Solution: I highly recommend asking this question during the interview/kick-off call. It’s a question that rarely gets asked but is so important for the collaboration that it builds almost instant rapport.

  • TIP: Some managers will share their READMEs; others will share their DISC Profile test results; others will have more specific preferences.

If you forgot to ask, watch for:

  • What words do they use when they talk about their needs? Are you using them as well -- and talking to those specific pain points?

      • Example: Do they mention needing Docker (probably not) -- or do they mention the need for reproducibility/self-serve?

  • Where do they prefer to share updates and how often? Do they prefer asynchronous communication or are meetings more effective?

      • Example: One of my managers preferred to meet over Slack.

  • When they reply/share: is there a time of day that works better for them? A specific format?

      • I’ve found that if I need more clarity, reaching out to summarize our thought process/assumptions and making specific suggestions or asking for specific clarification, makes it easier for someone to reply “yes, we’re on the same page” -- than it is for them to write out their thought process

  • How do they prefer to receive information?

      • Working with executives, who tend to check emails on their phone, I've found that they tend to prefer short and to the point messages, ideally starting with an executive summary impact to business if is/isn’t done, with bullets/links for further details (depending on executive) -- and include what their action item is.

      • TIP: Notice which one of your collaborators sends 1-sentence emails with no greetings -- or just a few words?

      • TIP: If there are no clear action items in emails now, that’s an added-value you can bring.

Challenge 2: Business Question or Impact not Clear

Solution: If you understand how they prefer to communicate, reach out in their preferred style (and format), to share what you think the business question is -- and ask if you’re on the same page.

When you provide a recommendation for next steps, it’s easier to get input to improve an idea than to get someone to come up with promising ideas on the spot (and type them out).

Challenge 3: Losing Sight of End Goal

Solution: If you know you have high attention to detail (like I do), to make sure we get back to the “big picture”, it helps to:

  • Think of this as ~5-page slide deck covering the executive summary of actionable, impactful findings and then showing how you got there (on a high level):

  • Context and any assumptions

  • Statement/visualization of the business problem

  • Actionable findings

  • 1-2 proposed next steps to discuss

  • Any content should be tied back to the business outcomes we are trying to reach.

      • That is, would you rather see a task-based update like this: did XYZ and fixed bug ABC?

      • Or would you rather see an outcome-based, self-contained update (with links for more details):

  • Our goal is to get to X, so we started doing Y and found Z, that will help us with X this way.

  • Our goal is to get to X, so we'll focus on fixing bug Y next and try A afterwards.

  • Remember to:

      • Share the deck/information before the meeting -- to not blindsight the collaborator and to get input during the meeting. Even then, during the meeting, don’t assume that they remember the context (there’s a lot going on!) -- ask if they need a refresher on the context and/or the statement of the problem.

      • Cater to your audience and what their needs and preferences are.

          • What problem are they trying to solve with data?

          • Is your audience more visual? (Probably.) If yes, can your slides contain more visual summaries.

Don’t forget, the goal is to get everyone on the same page, every time! I know I’m on the same page with my collaborator when they can finish my sentence (!) about what the next step is. This way, it’s easier to develop data products, make/save our company lots of $$$, and be more visible. As a side effect, your resume or portfolio will have more actionable bullets. Good luck!

Do you need an expert to help you develop your current/next data product, to improve your product market fit and have happier customers? Please reach out.


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