Is boldness over consensus the better way to work with product stakeholders?

By Jodie Hopperton


Los Angeles, California, United States


Until fairly recently, I was of the point of view that products’ role was often to bring stakeholders together to form consensus to prioritise limited resources. My mantra — which I stand by — is that everything starts with clear, understandable goals everyone can apply to their work.

So surely if you get the right stakeholders in the room, you can make decisions. Each priority comes with a trade off, and effectively you argue it out with product facilitating. 

Standing shoulder-to-shoulder instead of face-to-face promotes easier conversation.
Standing shoulder-to-shoulder instead of face-to-face promotes easier conversation.

On a call with someone I have a lot of respect for I was asked — at no notice — for candid feedback on their product work. This is not someone at my company but someone I have had the opportunity to speak with regularly. And this is the essence of what I told them: When it comes to product organisation, you are in the top bracket. But somehow that doesn’t translate into the products themselves.

This has stuck with both of us as a true puzzle and we have since discussed. We often manage stakeholders to get to a decision that everyone is relatively happy with. Is that what we should be doing?

Shepherding to a close

I’ve posed this question to a few people who have managed various products and iterations thereof. One of these people was Ben French, VP/subscription and membership products at Condé Nast, formerly of The New York Times, who gave me an excellent answer. He told me there are tools to “shepherd decisions to a close.”

Here’s more about what Ben had to say:

  • Start with the goals: Alignment is an overused word, but if you’re out to make smart decisions and ship impactful work, you need to set smart shared objectives. Once the objectives (and measurement!) are right, you can use them continually to reinforce future conversations.  

  • Get the right people in the room: It may feel less messy (or safe) to have siloed conversations, but it is less efficient and often means you’re just avoiding actual decision-making. Get comfortable with competing priorities and calmly work through them. 

  • Whenever possible, set up the distinct options available: People have more productive conversations when the options are clear. Get those on the table and make them distinct from one another. Use the room to elaborate on the pros and cons. Work collaboratively towards a shared commitment to one path over others. 

  • Occasionally be provocative: Avoiding the elephant in the room may make it easier to get through a session with a team, but you run the risk of watering down the impact of the work. Politely raise these tough questions by using expressions like, “Just to play devil’s advocate ...” or “I know this might not be right but my gut tells me ...” and “Does anyone else think ...”

  • Have a sense of humour: A little levity can lighten the mood and put people in a positive mindset. We are not curing cancer here; laughing once in a while lowers the stakes. 

  • Be well-intentioned. Always. You can ask hard questions, be provocative, and crack the occasional joke when people know you are here to do the best work and make the best decision for business. Modeling that behaviour makes people feel safe and brings out the same well-intentioned behaviour in them.  

Standing shoulder-to-shoulder

Another excellent piece of advice came from Chris Duncan, CEO of Bauer UK. He discovered the best way to communicate with his two teenage sons was not to sit face to face and ask questions but to do something together. He told me that standing shoulder-to-shoulder often allows you to get more. You are focused on something else and that allows for better conversation. 

If we sit on two sides of a table, it can feel combative. Therefore he has bought the shoulder-to-shoulder strategy into the boardroom. And we too can use it with our stakeholders, especially when there are difficult conversations to be had. 

If you can rally around something, put the physical focus elsewhere, you can often achieve more. He will often use a white board or Post-it notes on the wall to bring people together for decision-making. He believes the power of that comes from standing not face-to-face but shoulder-to-shoulder to reach a desired common outcome

Being bold

But one question remains: How do you ensure the group decision doesn’t lead to a bland outcome? Sometimes group discussions can lead to too much compromise, sometimes even dull. By compromising all around, everything gets tempered a little, leaving no room for being bold. 

So, in true style of product thinking, as I have more data, I have changed my mind. There is a time for consensus and there is a time to be bold, for one person or department to take the lead and do something different. That is where greatness comes. It’s where innovation comes. 

If there is something you truly believe in, make a case and get a stakeholder, ideally a CEO, to buy in to it. Some of the best decisions are the ones that true product people have a good gut feeling about. These people have likely gone through one or more failures. They know the risks of what it’s like to have gone all in and have it not work out. They know how it feels, have done the analysis, and braved the culture. 

As we learnt from Tony Fadell, the inventor of the iPhone: Version 1 of any new product will be based on taste, opinion, and gut feel on customer insights from the core team (usually made up of product, design, UX, and maybe engineering). “A lot of time we won’t know,” he said, but we had to go and try it. This is not the time for long, collaborative-driven consensus. The team just needs to make it happen. “You never get to v2, v3, or more without taking some risks on v1.”

This does not mean that we should ignore our colleagues or go headstrong into something that hasn’t been sense checked. The product process of understanding user problems, using data to build and test hypotheses etc etc is always valid. But that first idea and that first set of steps taken can be towards a bolder goal.

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About Jodie Hopperton

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