Appease All, Satisfy None: How CTOs Can Improve Stakeholder Buy-in
Trying to satisfy stakeholders, investors and board members can sabotage your product. Here’s how to stop it…
As a CTO, you are in control of your own team - but you’re not completely autonomous when it comes to making decisions. While your direct reporting obligations likely vary depending on your company’s structure, you will face pressure from at least one source that may impact your decision making.
Sadly, that’s the best-case scenario. What is more likely is that CTOs will face pressure from multiple angles all at once - be that investors, board members or other stakeholders. Let’s refer to both of these as commercial stakeholders from now on.
What’s more, you’ll also deal with questions, suggestions and requests from other areas of the business that may have no actual authority over you.
All of these factors add up to one thing: CTOs are under a great deal of pressure from all sides. This pressure becomes more apparent whenever a new product launch rolls around - as the expectations, opinions or even ignorance of lots of individual people become more pronounced.
Unfortunately, as a software agency, we see this all too often. When we work with CTOs, the early stage of any project often calls for a reassessment of the product/project’s demands. For example, you may already have a list of features or systems, but how many of these are actually useful in facilitating the product’s purpose?
Whether your stakeholders are too involved in requesting new features or not involved enough and you struggle to win approval, both outcomes can lead to a derailed project.
Communicating user journeys to stakeholders: you need to get in the room
One of our most useful early exercises is our discovery workshop, where we run CTOs through a process involving mapping user types and requirements to features/functions. We do this to go from what you think your product needs to what a user actually needs.
But that’s no good for the stakeholders who’ve asked you to include X features. No one likes to let people down - especially not those who have any level of seniority over you. But in this case, CTOs need to be able to explain the value of cutting down on feature bloat and focusing on user needs.
To do this, you need to be open in your communications with the stakeholders. You should demonstrate user journeys and clearly illustrate why certain product decisions are more likely to lead to conversions (for example, based on direct or indirect customer feedback). After all, in any commercial exercise, conversions are key. But getting a stakeholder to see this value is not an easy process - especially if you’re not even represented in the room.
In fact, less than 10% of S&P 500 companies had a technology subcommittee. It also found that the highest performing companies (31 per cent) were more likely to have a tech-savvy board director than other companies (17%). The same study foundry that almost half of these board interactions with technology topics were solely centred on cyber risk and privacy, with far fewer looking into digital transformation.
To a CTO in a smaller business, this can mean that even having your suggestions heard can be a task all on its own.
But to create change and pushback on unnecessary expectations, you have to get involved in the conversation and get your ideas in front of the stakeholders. Whether that’s by going through an upper manager, creating a subcommittee or securing attendance to board-level meetings, you must push to have a tech-savvy voice heard in every stakeholder decision.
Creating better beginnings through board engagement
The closer to the beginning of a project you can get the stakeholders ‘on board’, the less reactive you’ll need to be. If you don’t win early approval, you’ll either have to retroactively change the scope of the project which can impact its timeline, success and costs - or you’ll have to go back to stakeholders and justify why you’ve made decisions against their will.
To create a more user-centric mindset in stakeholders, you need to get them invested early. This means having a clear presentation that illustrates your user-journey mindset and justifies your decisions. You can field questions here to further explain your thinking but remember: you’re the expert. You need to show confidence so that the stakeholders can invest in you and your knowledge.
Stakeholders tend to prioritise the management of risk and security over innovation. As a result, they are more likely to say no to a feature than to add one - but some are keen on certain features or elements they may have seen elsewhere. To help reframe their thinking, read our piece about feature bloat.
For most CTOs, creating stakeholder engagement centres on the following:
Performance metrics: you need to have examples or hard data around how certain actions can yield performance improvements. This includes financial performance, operational performance and customer satisfaction. If, for example, you could justify excluding a requested feature because it will save X in development costs and only 1% of users ever engage with it, you’re on to a winner.
Risk: can you present examples of risk in a way that’s favourable to having your ideas go ahead? E.g: If a feature will lead to a security breach, you can easily justify its exclusion. Will an update to the Android OS make a feature obsolete?
Growth strategy: Stakeholders are invested in the financial performance of a company, so showing how your technology suggestions can facilitate growth will help win approval. Relate your user journeys against projected improvements in customer satisfaction and conversions. Show how improved data collection can lead to better decision-making in future. Basically, this is where you can justify your feature decisions and push back on those which won’t further the growth of the business as a whole.
External agency vs investors/stakeholders: the final battle of buy-in
If you’re appointing a digital agency to carry out the project, you need to manage expectations on two fronts: that of the agency and of the stakeholders involved in the project.
In a way, the lack of stakeholder tech investment can work to your benefit here: lots of CTOs get free reign when it comes to choosing how they actually carry out a project - all that matters to the board is the result/cost.
Unfortunately, we’re also talking about tricky stakeholders or directors who are overly invested in key features/ideas and like to get involved in the details. In this case, a CTO must justify their work with an agency and ‘sell’ the ideas provided by an agency back to the board.
For KOMODO, this is a challenge we relish. We’ve worked with large-scale charitable organisations, ambitious startups and enterprise businesses to build product and project plans which help CTO’s win their stakeholders over.
By creating a process that identifies what your users need, how the product can more accurately meet those needs and, finally, how to map features/functions to the growth strategies that matter to your commercial success. We can help you wow your investors, push back on bad ideas and build a better perception of digital innovation in your company.
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