5 steps to sell your product plan to your stakeholders

Getting agreement on your product plans can be an uphill, bloody battle. As a product manager, you’re likely more immersed in your product and have the closest thing to a 360-degree view than nearly anyone else in your company. You know your customers. You know the market and what’s needed to sell and support your product. You know what engineering can, wants, and needs to do to keep things running. But you need stakeholder buy in, and, sometimes, formal approval.

If you’re a PM whose product plans get second-guessed or overruled, or if you’re frustrated with the amount of time and effort it takes to persuade your stakeholders, help is here. In this article, we’ll explain five steps you can take to improve your approach and your product plan to get everyone on board.

1. Clarify business and product objectives up front.

What’s most important for company and product success over the next few quarters?

PMs don’t set the business objectives -- they’re not CEOs, as Martin Erikson eloquently explains in Product Managers – You Are Not the CEO of Anything. But they do need to understand the criteria by which their product’s success will be evaluated in the context of their company’s business priorities.

Not clear on your business and product objectives? You’re not alone. Many companies don’t clearly communicate their business and product objectives. As a PM, you should insist on clarity so that you can use these objectives to make and explain tough product decisions. If you’re not sure of business objectives, ask. Or circulate a list of what you think they might be and get input from senior leaders at your company.

Why it’s important

Knowing the business and product objectives helps you make the tough decisions about what’s in your product plan -- and what’s not. As you consider a potential feature for your plan, estimate its impact against these top objectives. Will a potential feature move the needle in a direction that matters? And by how much?

In discussions with your stakeholders, focus on expected impact against the top objectives. As one product leader we worked with noted, this approach, “takes the personal politics out of product discussions.” Providing clear, objective criteria helps everyone get on board.

Tips and tricks

If your boss or executive team isn’t entirely clear on the objectives for your product for the planning period, try running a preference exercise (aka best-worst scaling exercise) based on some good options, so you can learn which are most important. Then share your findings. Here’s more information on how to do that.

When you present your product plan to stakeholders, if anyone questions why one feature made it when their favorite did not, you can show your assessment of each feature’s impact against the top priorities. Discuss the assessment, not the priorities.

Bonus points

Focusing on business objectives shows your boss (and boss’s boss…) and colleagues that you understand the business context of your product.

If priorities or objectives change, while you’re planning or later, forcing you to replan, then you can explain that to your stakeholders, who will be more receptive and less frustrated because they understand why.

2. Get stakeholder input.


Getting stakeholder input to your product plan helps you make better product decisions. Plus you’ll have an easier time getting support for your plan from stakeholders when they feel like they had a hand in creating it.

Casual conversations aren’t enough. Use active listening skills if you’re having face-to-face conversations. Take notes. Run surveys. You may need to force your peers and others to confront the cold, harsh reality of decision making: Everything you’re considering for your product plans is valid and doubtless important to someone. But you must make choices because you can’t build everything now. 

Document their input and include it for reference in your product plan presentations and documentation to explain the “why” behind product choices, especially those that are contentious.

Why it’s important

Your product plans will more accurately reflect stakeholder needs when you solicit their input.

In addition, people are more likely to support your plan when they see that you have listened to their opinions, heard their concerns, and taken them into consideration.

Tips and tricks

Make feedback part of your process without taking too much extra time by running on-line surveys on a regular basis (for example, quarterly). Tell your stakeholders that you have to make hard choices and want their help. Then show them that their input has impact.

Bonus points

  • Formalize and memorialize stakeholder input by including it in your product plan presentations and materials.
  • Communicate back to your stakeholders: Here’s what each team prioritized, and here’s what they got in the plan.

3. Get market and customer input.


Build an economic rationale for your decisions. If possible, gather evidence to show that choosing a set of features is more likely to result in higher revenue or growth than another set.

The best way to ensure that your product plans address market and customer needs is to find out directly from them what they need and want. That means getting market and customer input. Here are some ways to do that:

  • In-depth, one-on-one interviews, typically 45 minutes to an hour each, in which you discuss needs and the value of solving them with customers and prospects.
  • Online surveys, which you do after interviews, to test hypotheses at scale with customers and prospects.
  • Form and talk to a customer advisory group.
  • Talk to industry experts.

Why it’s important

In any for-profit business, nothing beats an economic rational. So build a case for your decisions: Choosing this set of features delivers more revenue or acquires more new customers than this other set. A product that doesn’t solve needs or otherwise provide value or delight doesn’t sell. So you’ve got to find out what solutions your customers and target market value most before you can construct your product plan. Not only will your product plans be more successful, you’ll also have evidence to explain why you’ve made product decisions. You’ll be better armed to fend off detractors. And you can have better informed, more rational discussions about trade-offs.

Tips and tricks

There are a variety of techniques you can use. For example, see Obo’s Market Signals Field Guide. We generally do not recommend focus groups because of “group think” and bias issues.

Bonus points

Get input from external audiences your stakeholders want to hear from. They might learn from it too!

4. Get engineering input and buy-in.

Engineers are stakeholders, too, so they can also contribute ideas and feedback to product plans as part of step 2 above. But there’s another issue at play: Nothing hurts engineering morale more than the perception that unrealistic, unachievable product plans are being forced on them. They may not know much about the market, but they hate to build the wrong things.

The discussion with engineering is really a negotiation where you work together to determine scope and price trade-offs, especially for the highest priority needs you identified in steps 1 through 3.

Why it’s important

It’s at the core of what PMs and engineering do: they determine what can be delivered when. Then as the release is underway, they scope, re-scope, and re-plan as necessary.

Engineering must engage in scope and estimates so they can support and deliver on your plans. They also need to understand why items are on your product plan and what the priorities are so that they can design the best solutions.

Tips and tricks

We like to use a team-source approach to cost estimates using a preference (aka Best-Worst) type exercise. It’s surprisingly quick and accurate for the purposes of developing your product plan.

Bonus points

Engage the engineering team in their two critical roles in product planning: as stakeholders who have unique perspectives and creative ideas, and as the team that builds the product you plan. Their participation builds support and enables better product alignment with customer and market needs.

5. Highlight the “why” in your product plans.

The core of what top product manager do is make tough choices and get buy-in. Your product plans are stronger when they highlight and explain why your choices are better than others.

We love roadmaps, but they’re often not enough. Include the reasons for product decisions in the materials you use to communicate your product plan. Restate the business priorities that the product plan is designed to address. Make it easy for stakeholders to access analysis of customer, market, and stakeholder surveys and interviews so they understand the “why” behind your choices.

Why it’s important

The best way to sell your product plan is to get stakeholder participation, so they feel invested, and to provide strong evidence for your product decisions.

Tips and tricks

Assume that plans will change due to new urgent requirements, scope issues, technical issues, and resource issues. But don’t let that mislead you into the trap of not planning.

Make your product plans accessible to other teams, such as engineering, marketing, support, etc., so they can refer back to the “why” when they build, market, and support the product.

Bonus points

Over time, stakeholders will come to expect that product planning decisions are based on clear criteria. They’ll start to frame their input to fit the business priorities as well as market and customer needs, which will reduce planning friction.

Follow these five steps, and you’ll not only produce better product plans that are easier to sell to your stakeholders. You’ll establish yourself as a product leader.

Validate for product success

No one likes the idea of pouring precious time and effort into...

Read More

Lies, damned lies, and the 4 levels of validation

Dante’s Inferno has nine circles of Hell. Fortunately, product...

Read More

Are idea portals a bad idea?

Idea portals aren’t a bad idea -- but they aren’t necessarily a...

Read More

Have a comment?