Experienced PMs, what are your tips for managing the expectations of your stakeholders?

Need help!!

I’m a new PM (approaching 1 year of experience), and I have a really hard time saying “no” to people or saying “this can’t be done in a day but can be done a few weeks from now”. I feel constant pressure to yes to everything and try to get everything done asked of me ASAP. This is a problem because it makes PM really unenjoyable and a constant stress factory…

Part of this seems to be from my company’s heavy use of slack, so everyone is messaging everyone in every channel at all times asking for things (eng/customer facing team/etc.) and it becomes a constant question of what to look at now vs. later. My manager also seems to expect things to be done ASAP or “as soon as you can”, but even the latter is hard when there are 30 things are on your plate…

I also have problems figuring out if things should be a PM responsibility or a someone else responsibility, but maybe that’s a different problem.

Experienced PMs, how exactly do you manage expectations of your stakeholder (including your manager) when you’re asked to do a billion thing and you don’t want to upset people or make yourself look bad?

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An important skill that you can definitely learn is saying no, but not saying no. It involves validating your stakeholder, but not committing. You validate them by telling them that their want is reasonable. You don’t commit by explaining the current roadmap and the resourcing limitations. You continue to engage by saying you’ll see where it can live in the prioritization. You commit to continued engagement but no specific time frame until that is potentially possible. It’s no, but it’s not no.

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Give yourself a buffer by saying “let’s talk about it and I’ll see if this could be part of the next release”. The key here is to create the perception that your stakeholder feels heard/did their part even though the execution may have to wait. Stakeholders understand the resources/time are finite, but they don’t know what other competing priorities are there/what trade-offs need to be made. So you want to help them understand what timeline actions can be made and reasons behind why.

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@KaranTrivedi, I wouldn’t advise giving false hope. That’ll just make stakeholders hound them more… the best push back that I’ve found is asking the stakeholder to help you make the business case. Ask them to quantify the problem and bring proof. The product discipline requires rigor, so if other departments expect you to take their request, then they should be willing to go through the same rigor. Pushing stakeholders in that direction will minimize requests and become a true value add to the product org when you get other departments thinking like product people.

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@Naomi, Yes. This should be part of “let’s chat and I will see/review if this could be part of the next release (aka I will see if this is a priority)”. Else a product manager becomes a glorified project manager in a build trap.

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Another tactic, especially with big clients comprised of multiple departments, is to ask them to rank their own requests. Suddenly that super urgent thing might not be so urgent, when they need to ask their colleagues to de-rank theirs to get what they want. If they come back with “everything is a number 1” then you explain that’s not how counting works.

At the very least this will buy you some time, since you likely already have a general idea of the top items already.

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This is exactly what a road map is for. Stakeholders should understand that capacity is limited and that it is your job to prioritize whatever is most valuable, defined by success metrics.

You should be speaking with stakeholders to assess business benefit and value of their requests, and work with them to agree what is most important to work on now, and later.

Then expectations should be set, and there is a shared understanding that if they request something urgently, it will be at the expense of the existing project.

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I agree with your statement. However roadmap is a derivative of strategy, and it is shaped by senior execs. If they don’t have that strategy, roadmap becomes a delivery gantt chart that can be rewritten by HIPPO at any time, making the whole concept of a roadmap a joke.

You can’t expect a PM with a 1 year experience to drive strategic conversations. That’s what senior product leadership is for.

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@PriyaVarma, I disagree. Your roadmap should not be shaped by senior execs. The company strategy might, therefore your product strategy should align back up to it, but execs should never tell PMs what their roadmap should consist of. That’s not product management and a recipe for failed products.

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@Marco, I do strongly agree with you. Perhaps my wording wasn’t good. Strategy is on execs, aligned roadmap is on respective PMs. But without strategy alignment, any roadmap will become a mess.

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I am at a company where a HIPPO often dictates the roadmap… it’s not fun at all… you really become a technical project manager and only product manager small things. Trying to get my 1 year of experience and leave.

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@ChristieDook, Looks like you got nothing to lose then :smiley: in this case, I’d suggest building the muscle of steering stakeholders, following the suggestions in this thread. You may not fix this company and it’ll feel miserable for a while, but the muscle will help you steering other folks in the future.

For instance, try to understand what kind of arguments sit well with the Hippo. Some like numbers, some like visuals. Some go in details, some stay 10000m high. It will help finding common grounds with stakeholders and twisting your stories to fit a particular mindset.

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@Priyavarma, Yup. Despite it being a rather shitty experience here, I’m mostly not deterred from PM and will use it as a learning experience and hopefully leave this year lol.

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The five most important words on this thread. This conversation isn’t “I want” vs. “No”. It’s a collaboration where the business raises the want/need, and Product surfaces the prior commitments and constraints.

The more clout a stakeholder has, the more they need to be exposed to the consequences of wielding it. Transparency on the roadmap is the first part of that conversation.

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One tactic I’ve also found useful (answers here are already good) is to create a list of these asks and make it available to stakeholders. Then at our weekly meeting, we talk about which is most important. I keep a small slush fund of time set aside for this kind of reactive work and work them in order. That way, you are communicating what you are working on and letting them actively help prioritize their requests. If they put something higher than you’d expect, ask why. They’ll probably reveal something interesting.

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One tactic that I use is to clearly communicate what’s on my plate and what trade-offs I’d have to make if I were to take on their ask. If your priorities are strategically aligned to the org most of the time your stakeholders will empathize and take no for an answer.

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@HeatherKurtz, Yeah that is really good… I’ve found it’s always good to have a list of things you’re working on at the moment at really any point in time to be able to have those conversations. Otherwise people just assume you have bandwidth for everything

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I find that sometimes it’s a bit like being back in school, where every teacher assigned a perfectly reasonable amount of homework for THEIR class but never seemed to take into account the fact that every other teacher was assigning the same amount of work. In the business world, it’s quite similar. Nobody is trying to overload you, they just don’t see all the moving pieces. You have to help them see, and frame it as assuring a quality product and good response times.

Your manager is challenge #1, if they’re expecting you to manage by fire-drill then you can try for as much structure as you want and it’s going to be difficult. But if you can get them to see the problem and help, then you have a fighting chance. When I’ve been in your shoes, that’s where I start first. My workload right now has crept beyond manageable and I’m about to have this very conversation with mine in a few days.

The way I’ll do it is to start by framing up the overall issues, which I do by a very simple set of notes in Google Keep. Couple big notes for the major projects that I’m working across, and checkboxes for the various items that I have up in the air. This gives him the transparency to see the issue, and not just me saying ‘I’ve got too much stuff’. Then he’ll help me re-prioritize what needs done first, and run interference on things that are going on the back burner.

There will always be more asks of me, and of my teams, than there are hours in the day. If someone wants to be upset that you need to sleep so their project doesn’t get done in 4 hours, then that’s a Them problem and not a You problem.

In my company we also have a cross-stack dependency meeting where the business leads for each product group all have to sit in a room each quarter and see all the items being requested by every other stack. They align first, and then me and mine run with their decisions. Their alignment is constrained by the velocity of the teams and available resources though, so they can’t just decide it’s all getting done. That way later in the quarter when someone wants their pet project that didn’t make it onto the board in the dependency meeting, I can tell them that. And remind them that if they really feel the priority has changed, they can reconvene another meeting and convince one of the other stakeholders to de-prioritize their project instead. Your stakeholders have to hold each OTHER accountable, in a sense.

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@MichaelYoffe, Thanks for the lengthy response. I completely agree on having a list of things you’re working on to provide to your manager when you have too much on your plate. Managers in my experience look for evidence and won’t take you saying you have too much work at face value. They always ask for validation. I’ve also found as long as you’re tactful with how you ask there’s generally a compromise . But if you don’t say anything, you can expect people to continue to ask oh to get more done.

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Just wanted to say I have the exact same issue as a new PM. I think when people see you as responsive and saying yes, they also ask you for more things in the future.

All the advice on this thread is solid. I think it’s good to set expectations / timelines when you accept a request, and you can even try postponing answering some slack messages/request if they aren’t urgent - if they’re urgent, they will get escalated or answered by someone else.

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