The Product Fix

A Look at Invisible Stakeholders

A Look at Invisible Stakeholders

Wednesday 13th April 2016

Stakeholder management is a minefield, demanding of the product manager/owner the diplomatic skills of a French courtier combined with the patience of a stylite. The task can be made easier by identifying invisible stakeholders and making them visible.

The standard stakeholder grid has trajectories of 'power' and 'influence'. However, these terms are closely associated to position and money: who has power and influence? Clients, of course. The CEO. The Product Director. The Sales Department. The financiers.

This kind of money-and-organisational-chart based thinking can obscure some important stakeholders. This is because power and influence are anarchic things. They aren't always what we think and we find them in odd places.

To be blunt, departments up and down the nation are headed by executives who are like the proverbial dog being wagged by the tail (their teams). This is healthy: a good leader will be attentive to staff needs and act as an enabler and facilitator. It also means that people with true power and influence are often less visible. I suggest you are attentive to the presence of these very people: invisible, or off-grid, stakeholders.

Characteristics of invisible stakeholders

You think it wise to keep executives closely involved to keep your project on track? True, but I once found a most influential and powerful invisible stakeholder to be a lady doing part-time data entry on a business-facing application my team was upgrading. Working in relative obscurity, she threw many a spanner into the works, using her boss as a mouthpiece.

I'll take her as an example to look at how power and influence might be disguised. Let's call the lady Anne:

  • Anne had been with the company for a very long time and was a specialist at her job.
  • Anne had excellent relationships with her boss, her team and folk all over the company.
  • Anne was opinionated and outspoken. Her boss rarely questioned her ideas and demands, but often mentioned her as an authority in meetings.
  • Of course, Anne hated the legacy application. (Everybody did.)
  • Anne and her team told many tales of woe about the past performance of the IT department, a 'pit of doom into which we chuck our tickets'. There was a long history of neglect inflicted upon Anne's team by the nefarious IT crowd.
  • Her boss sometimes brought Anne along to meetings though Anne wasn't on the invitation.

The pointers to power and influence are obvious. Knowledge is power. (Specialist knowledge even more so.) Experience spells both power and influence. Connections mean influence. Speaking up is power. Cynicism and anger and intransigence are also powerful.

Did Anne appear on any of the 'official' stakeholder grids that slumbered on Confluence? Of course not. Was Anne heard? You bet. Her boss, just like wise bosses everywhere, relied on Anne and represented her point of view.

But because her boss didn't possess Anne's battle-hardened insights and passed on second-hand opinions, watered down, devoid of their original sharpness and often very late, we wasted time and energy.

Locating invisible stakeholders

People at Anne's level simply didn't make it onto The Official Stakeholder Grid. We managed Anne's boss as a 'powerful' and 'influential' stakeholder while all along it was Anne we should have engaged with.

Many stakeholders are obvious: clients, power users, purse-string holders ... but in order to identify more valuable stakeholders ask yourself:

  • Whose name always pops up in relation to relevant issues?
  • Who works with this application? (Name persons, not teams.)
  • Alternatively: Who listens to client complaints most frequently?
  • What went wrong in the history of this product? Who blames whom?
  • Who is most opinionated, and why?
  • Who is complaining or making suggestions? Which forum do they use? Whom do they reach?
  • What threads of relevant communication or complaining have been going on for a while?

Some of these questions are unorthodox. Some are not easy to answer. But identifying invisible, off-grid stakeholders and actively managing them can truly energise your project.