Does Stakeholder Alignment Really Matter?
The word “stakeholder” always bothered me. The idea that some people had an extra interest in what we were working on was especially confounding in my early days as a product builder. Was team size what mattered? Seniority of title? What about customers, were they not the ultimate stakeholders? Why were some folks seemingly more important than others?
Many people contribute to an organization's success — executives, core teammates, cross-functional partners, and (of course) customers. Everyone has a stake.
Despite not liking the term, my answer is "yes." Stakeholder alignment (as many people call it) does matter. How well folks are connected as a team will directly impact the value we create. So I have learned to use the words. But I wish we could reframe the conversation away from the dreaded "stakeholder" and talk about the broader need for business alignment and how to achieve it.
Business alignment is like a form of diplomacy. It is about safeguarding and championing the interests of your company, customers, and product while maintaining healthy relationships. And it is not reserved for a select few — everyone is responsible for it. Otherwise you end up with top-down directive whiplash, chaotic launches, scrambles to support customers, and the feeling that the plan is always shifting or at risk.
You end up with an organization working against itself. I know this is true because I have toiled in those organizations in the past. Now I speak with company and product leaders who are anxiously working to bring teams together.
Just the other day I was on a call with the CIO of a 2,500-person company responsible for getting 100 product, engineering, and data analytics folks to decide what to deliver (and then how to actually deliver it). The very health of their organization depends on how well this person can align the business. And so does his job.
Being in sync requires that you internalize business needs and can serve a higher purpose than your own — building connectivity and trust.
Yet business alignment often gets a bad rap. It can be worrying if you spend too much time on it because it suggests that trust is weak. It may also signal that people are managing perceptions more than they are managing business. But that does not mean that alignment is not a worthy goal. If anything, it makes it even more critical.
There are many factors that you cannot control — organizational dynamics or difficult personalities. But you can make significant strides with the right attitude and approach. In my experience, there are five areas that help people develop stronger relationships with colleagues that lead to better business alignment:
Develop true empathy
Who are you dealing with? What are they responsible for and where do you overlap? What gives them a headache and what brings relief? Understanding what makes people tick will help you choose the right flavor of diplomacy. Think about how you can be of value to others when you want nothing in return.
Center on strategy
Does everyone fully understand what you are working towards and why? Do not assume that they do. Every function has their own goals and priorities. Do not wait to find out that people have different ideas about yours — bring everyone to the proverbial table early in the process. Foster open communication with strategy as guide.
What is the best way to engage with each person? What information do they need to do their job well? What is superfluous? Use the empathy you built and seek to share what can help them succeed in their role. Alignment happens when you provide the right information at the right time.
Gauge the gaps
What are you missing? Are there areas that require explanation or education? Unrealistic expectations or perceptions? Where do the same pressure points emerge in the process? Provide visibility into your plans and actively seek feedback. You may not be a mind reader, but you can do your best to anticipate questions or provide data that can prevent future snafus.
Do you keep the promises you make? And when things go awry, are you proactive and explain why? My wife calls this the "say/do" ratio. We trust people who have a high say/do ratio. There are other little ways to prove yourself as a good partner — like organizing the information you share in a consistent way to reduce the time stakeholders have to spend getting caught up.
Focus conversations around strategy and customer value. Be proud to evangelize the “why” of what you are working on. Share your passion — it is often infectious.
Business alignment is about organizational success, not people pleasing. Relationships take time to grow. There will be some folks who you can rely on to quickly grok your plans and others who need more coaxing. And companies evolve too — the way things are right now will not always be the same.
Who knows, maybe in the next 10 years we will stop calling people stakeholders and a new buzzword will emerge. The thing I know for sure is that the need for teams to be aligned and move in sync with purpose will never go away.
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