How to Manage Stakeholder Expectations for Your Product

Optimism can be a great asset, and enthusiasm for your product is invaluable. But super-high expectations? Not so much.

As we’ve written here on the ProductPlan blog, success in product management often comes down to a balancing act. You need to find the sweet spot between your gut instinct and what the data says, for example, and you need to strike the right balance between focusing your attention on the strategic, 30,000-foot view of your product, and delving into the ground-level details needed to drive its development.

Another tightrope walk you’ll have to perform to give your products the best chance of success—and this one truly is mission-critical—will be managing your stakeholders’ expectations. You’ll want to persuade your stakeholders to feel optimistic about your product, but not so optimistic that they’ll be disappointed if it achieves anything less than total market domination.

We won’t lie to you: This might be the most difficult of all the balancing acts you have to perform to achieve success as a product manager. Why? Partly, and ironically, because your executive team is probably already enthusiastic about your product. And that can make managing their expectations a lot more challenging.

Research shows that executives are far more optimistic than the general population. This means that when you speak to your executive stakeholder team about your product’s plans or its current progress, you’ll have the tricky task of making them feel even more positive about your product’s prospects than they already do—but at the same time not letting their expectations run so high that they assume success is guaranteed.

So how the heck can you pull that off? Here are a few best practices for managing stakeholder expectations.

1. Keep stakeholder enthusiasm focused on the things you can control.

One powerful way to create and maintain stakeholder enthusiasm for your product without setting unreachable expectations is to focus on the things you and your team will be doing to give your product the best chance of success. This allows you to speak positively and optimistically to your stakeholders about your strategic plans without making any guarantees—explicitly or implicitly—about the outcomes.

For example, as you walk your stakeholders through your product roadmap, you can focus on how your cross-disciplinary teams will be working together, sharing knowledge from their respective areas of expertise (sales, support, design, development, etc.)—leveraging all of your organization’s real-world learnings to build the best possible product.

You can also focus your discussions with stakeholders on your strategic plans for engaging deeply with users, gathering and analyzing feedback, and working closely with your sales teams to learn about common customer objections, concerns, or buying triggers.

Remember, your stakeholders are probably already enthusiastic about your product—that’s why they gave you the green light to move forward with your strategic plan in the first place.

The best way to harness that enthusiasm is by showing them not that your product will be a guaranteed success (something you can’t control), but instead that you and your team will be highly engaged with the market, continually learning and working to make the product better (something you can control).

2. Use your product roadmap—not the backlog—to manage stakeholder expectations.

Many product teams unfortunately still treat the backlog as their product roadmap—a big strategic mistake, because the roadmap and backlog serve two very different purposes.

If your organization operates this way, you’re truly missing out on the considerable benefits of a properly crafted product roadmap, even if your backlog isn’t a black hole.

One of the most valuable uses of a well-constructed product roadmap is to facilitate more productive and efficient communication about the product across the organization. This is particularly valuable when you need to manage stakeholder expectations.

Tweet This:
“Use your product roadmap—not the backlog—to guide your discussions with stakeholders.”

If your executives, investors, or other stakeholders are used to reviewing only your product backlog and judging your progress against that document, you’re likely missing out on an opportunity to set the larger strategic context for them—and to appropriately manage their expectations.

When your stakeholders look at your product backlog, all they see is the list of tasks you’ve set for your product teams. That means all they have to judge how successfully you’re managing your products is how many of those tasks your teams are completing.

But when you use a true product roadmap to guide these discussions, you have the chance to walk your stakeholders through your strategic plans and objectives for the product. This puts you in a better position to set and manage stakeholder expectations, because you can focus their attention on the big-picture plans, as opposed to the tactical, day-to-day details that aren’t a very useful indicator of how your team is progressing on your broader, strategic agenda.

3. Highlight research and evidence to support your product plans.

When your doctor tells you that you need to cut back on sugar, does she tell you that this adjustment to your diet is a guarantee that you’ll become incredibly fit and healthy? Of course not. Nobody can guarantee that.

Instead, your doctor might tell you that reducing your sugar intake is one way to increase your chances of improving your health. She might cite research linking a low-sugar diet to health benefits for the average person. But no guarantees.

When you’re articulating your product’s objectives and plans to your stakeholder team, this should be your approach as well. Base your strategic decisions for your product’s plan on data from carefully selected metrics—and present that data to your stakeholders as support for your decisions.

You can tell your stakeholders, for example, that 57% of users who responded to your survey said a particular feature would be “very helpful” in improving their workflow, and that is why your team will be prioritizing that feature.

You can point out that a very high percentage of your customers have never used a given area of the product—and this is why you are de-emphasizing new functionality and upgrades to that area on your product roadmap.

Again, you are not promising anything with these data points. You are not unduly setting expectations that these strategic decisions will lead to specific outcomes. You’re simply showing your stakeholders that your team has put considerable thought and planning into each decision for your product—and that these stakeholders can take comfort in knowing you’re making these decisions with the best information available.

That’s how you manage stakeholder expectations.

Any other advice? Tell us how you manage stakeholder expectations, or how you’ve seen other product managers do it effectively.