4. August 2016

If you trust me, say "Hello"!

Katrin Sauer

Let me tell you a little story:
I used to work as a product owner for an eCommerce company. There, product management and marketing got together every couple of weeks to plan the marketing campaigns. All POs, including me – the newbie – presented their plans for the coming sprints and discussed marketing ideas. Usually, when it was my turn, I was scrutinized: “What exactly are the features? Are you sure that you can deliver that…?” – no matter how well I prepared. And no matter how well my team delivered.
A  colleague of mine who had been with the company a while longer than me basically never got that. She presented her plans, everybody nodded and … next one.
Eventually, I asked one of my Marketing colleagues: “why?” His simple answer was: “I know that I can trust her.”
Trust is a crucial issue in our everyday lives as product people. Especially, since we are responsible for building something that other departments can sell, that people out there will buy and use, and that the company can earn money with. So many people depending on us, so many stakeholders.

Welcome to Fight Club!

Unfortunately, the perspective of product owners towards their stakeholders turns out very often to be "me vs. them". Product people feel threatened, misunderstood, underappreciated. Just sit down with some and let them talk, and you will hear things like  “They won’t let me build my product!”, “They never accept my prioritization!”, “Why don’t they just see that we can’t do that!”
They see it as a continuous ordeal of discussions, little brawls and big battles. And that is extremely exhausting. But it is also their fault.

Product people against stakeholders: Continuous fights? Own fault? If you trust me, say Hello!
Of course, there often is a competition: We product people

  • love our product with a passion
  • have to make decisions – which often means doing one thing and neglecting another
  • have to deliver

Stakeholder, on the other hand

  • are responsible for their topic (e.g. Marketing) – their “product"
  • have their own stakeholders, too
  • depend on the PO (either because the need to have something implemented / need the input to plan…)

That’s why their perception is very often: “The PO has all the power, I am completely dependent on her.”  Dependency brings with it the feeling of completely giving up control. And no one gives up control easily.
So, if we don’t want the relationship with our stakeholders to develop into a tug-o-war, we want (need!) our stakeholders to trust us. Otherwise, they will question every decision we make. They might even start working against us.

But what exactly is trust?

Trust is something we feel – irrational and not necessarily based on facts. It CAN be influenced by rational aspects (which we can work with), but first of all, it is a gut reaction:
When I place trust in someone, I am relying on this person to do everything in their power to deliver what I need. So, as a consequence, there’s a significant level of uncertainty involved.
I am uncertain about the result of the other person’s actions. There’s a risk of failure or harm if the other person does not behave as agreed or desired. This is the bet that I am making when I trust in someone.

People want to trust

If we product people want to build trust with our stakeholders, we have to hope that they are willing to take this step. The good thing is that, in general, they want to trust us, too. Why?

  • It makes life easier – Worry is exhausting. If they can trust me, they don’t have to worry.
  • It relieves pressure – If they can pass along the responsibility to me, they have freed up their own time.
  • It makes it easier to work together – Believe me, our stakeholders don’t want to fight either!


What makes people trust?

smileyFirst and foremost, trust is an emotional reality based on the feeling people have towards each other – decided within the fraction of a second. If it clicks right from the start and a stakeholder instinctively likes you, they will trust you more quickly and easily.  If the chemistry isn’t right, you might have a very hard time gaining any ground. This emotional aspect can be ameliorated because there are some things that make people trust more easily:

  1. We human beings place higher trust in people we consider part of our “in group”. So let’s try and build a relationship with them.
  2. The more positive experience people have with us, the safer they will feel with their “bet” on us.

This we can actually influence by our behavior, and it is not that hard. Here’s a list:

To build a relationship:
  1. Meet them at eye-level
    They depend on us to deliver the product, that puts us in a position of power. But we should never forget – we are working together! We have the same goals, making the product or the company successful. And their work is necessary and important to reach that goal, too. So forget about their title, (forget about your title!) and start working together as equal partners.
  2. Care about your stakeholders and their issues!
    Understand that they have processes, stakeholders, and problems, too, all of which influence their requirements. When we acknowledge it in our work with them, they will feel understood.
  3. Help your stakeholders with their problems!
    That doesn’t mean that we should do whatever they ask of us. We need to understand what the problem is that they need to have solved.Very often, stakeholders will present us with a solution (that they came up with). Sometimes, the solution is fine and possible to implement. But if their solution can not be delivered, they will still have a problem. So sit down with them and find out what they really need. And then work out possible alternative solutions with them.
  4. Have a clear goal – and communicate it!
    We make our decision concerning the product based on our goals. So if our stakeholders know our goal – and the reasons why this is our goal – they can better understand why we do things. If there are several goals at the same time, we need to prioritize them and communicate the prioritization constantly. However, we should never consider our goals set in stone. Let’s be open to discussing our goals – and even adjust them when there are good reasons to do so. And if we don’t have any goals “given” by higher ups? Well, then let’s create one together!

Two smiling little boys are standing together against the white background

To create a positive experience:

Going through a positive experience once makes our stakeholders remember that occasion fondly. Going through the same positive experience again and again will build trust.

  1. Be honest
    That one’s easy:

    • If you have a problem, tell them.
    • If you don’t understand them, tell them.
    • If you are too hungover to get into that topic right now – tell them and reschedule!

    Are you afraid that honesty might be misinterpreted as weakness? I personally have never had this experience. For me, being honest has always helped my stakeholders to understand where I am, and why I act in a particular way. And they appreciated it.
    By the way – being evasive or straight out lying is one of the things that will destroy any trust!

  2. Be reliable
    Being reliable means being true to our word. So, when our stakeholders come to us with a problem, we need to tell them what we will do to solve it – and then DO it. Don’t change the course of action just because you can. If you need to, get back to them as soon as you know. And work out a different way to solve their problem (Back to “help them”).
  3. Be transparent
    The more our stakeholders see what we are doing, the easier it is for them to understand the constraints we are working under.
    So show them your backlog (why not pin it to the wall right behind you?) and explain to them what other requirements you have on your plate. It often also helps a lot to tell them who the other stakeholders are. Maybe even bring them together so they can understand each other’s problems – and start helping each other and us.
    Volunteer information by asking them if they have questions – if they do, answer. Again, this will help them to understand why we do what we do. Explain things to them and don’t hide important details. If you can’t give them information (e.g. because you are working on something top secret), be open about that, too.


Time will tell

These tips can help you building a solid foundation of trust between you and your stakeholders. But it will take time! Building trust is a long process. It can be fragile – one stupid mistake too many, and we’re back to zero.And sometimes – just sometimes – you will encounter a person who is simply a major-league a*@hole. In this case, my only advise is: Do not stoop to their level – grind them down with professionalism.

"If you trust me, say 'Hello'" was the title of my talk at the ProductCamp Berlin 2015. You can find the slides on Slideshare

Katrin Sauer
Agile | Product | Coaching

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