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.
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! Tweet This!Of course, there often is a competition: We product people
Stakeholder, on the other hand
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.
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.
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?
First 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:
This we can actually influence by our behavior, and it is not that hard. Here’s a list:
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.
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!
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