Let’s Just Start Over or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying About the Product and Comfort a Cranky Stakeholder

I wrote this piece on Medium first about my work as a Product Manager:

Last week, colleague walked over to my desk to ask me about the product I just started working on. And by started to work on, I mean I inherited this product in part because there was some significant “clean-up” needed and rumor has it that I’m good with fixer-uppers. His question to me was, “How about we just start over?” In short, stating that he’d almost rather walk away from this dumpster-fire mess than somehow try to put out the embers and make something of the leftover half-burned pieces of fresh garbage. Well, this isn’t exactly what he meant but that’s probably how I felt when I heard the question and realized the hole I now needed to climb out of.

Bonfire at Night
Bonfire #8 by Jen Gallardo

In life (and probably politics, but I digress), it’s important to put yourself in the shoes of the person on the other side of an issue. I learned this little lesson growing up in Catholic school but it’s a pretty basic value that we can all take to heart (atheists, inclusive). And, in the product realm, it’s crucial. Empathy for the users of your product will go a long way toward fostering adoption. A good example of the exact opposite of this is in the ad product world, especially on mobile devices. Others have written at length about this but the ads are just so intolerable that people either engage ad blockers to keep them away or stop visiting certain websites as a result of non-functioning ads, or even intrusive marketing. I think we all understand that ads need to exist in some form and often we rely on ads to keep us informed (for example, about a movie we are looking forward to seeing) but we just don’t love the way the ads have been put in front of us lately.

In the case of my colleague, I put myself in his shoes. The product serves the needs of many, but few of his team’s needs. In picking up this work, my first order of business is to build the trust that I will more fairly attend to the needs of this particular stakeholder and his team. The only way for me to really do that is to empathize with his situation but then highlight that, while starting over is appealing, it will ultimately make it even slower for us to move forward on getting his team what they need which is counterproductive to his goal. I also noted that, for now, we’ll see how far we can get with this product and then re-evaluate when it makes sense to see if we need to change direction.

This was a satisfactory answer and much of the satisfaction came from it being an honest answer that acknowledged the (months of) strife and anxiety this particular stakeholder experienced. Empathy and honesty are key in stakeholder management. Many product deficiencies can be overcome if the stakeholders are willing to take a leap of faith with you as the product manager. However, stakeholders will be less likely hold your hand as you attempt to lead them to dive off that cliff with you if you haven’t established a history of being forthright.