Communicating complexity

Photo by Lili Popper

So... how far are we away from achieving this goal? How long will it take to deliver this feature? When will we be able to roll out this new test? What's the timeline? What's the strategy?  As a product manager, these are some of the most common questions received from stakeholders.

Understandably stakeholders want to know what's going on to communicate and act on the latest information and realign their plans. The difficulty is they are also questions that are always tricky to answer. It's often never a black and white picture, a yes or no scenario. 

There is always complexity. 

So how do you communicate complexity without going down a rabbit hole? I'm no expert at this, but here are a few principles that I've been thinking about that have helped me. 

1. Their lens > Your lens 

How you communicate a situation should almost entirely be driven by what key information you feel a stakeholder needs to know. This isn't about not sharing information, but carefully selecting what core information would be most useful to a stakeholder. You don't want to share every single tiny detail of information. It will be too much to digest, and what you want to say will get lost. 

To get to the heart of what you need to communicate, imagine that you are in their seat. Spend time thinking through what it's likely your stakeholder will want to know. It's probably likely going to be the big picture questions.  Are we on track? What are the biggest challenges? Do you need me to do anything to help you?

You can also lean into the fact that you might know how these stakeholders best receive information. Maybe they are driven by data and want to see the raw numbers. Perhaps they like the narrative, and you will need to draw on the story, or maybe they are very visual and use props to help guide the conversation. 

2. Use the rule of three 

There is something about the number three that makes everything a bit easier to understand. Whenever you're giving an update or persuading a stakeholder, you should always have three clear points. 

Why do this? Well, for three reason:

  1. It will structure your thinking, forcing you to choose your top reasons or updates
  2. You will sound more decisive and confident while speaking
  3. It's far more memorable and easy to digest as a stakeholder when you don't have all the context

Stakeholders will have their own problems, priorities and are often inundated with vast amounts of information. 

3. Focus on hypothesis and process over goals 

Goals are important, but they mean nothing without a system. 

You want to highlight your route to your goals and not just the end state. By focussing on your strategy, you can showcase your analysis, thinking and decision making. It's also an opportunity for stakeholders to help you evaluate the approach to the goal. They may unearth issues with your plan that you might not have considered. 

One exercise you can do is to anticipate what likely questions could come up.  You can add a series of FAQ-style slides that could be placed in the appendix as a reference. 

4. Likely outcomes and confidence  > specific outcomes

It's hard to be one hundred percent certain about something always.

There are so many variables to take into account. That's why it's better to talk about likely outcomes and your confidence rather than zero-sum outcomes. By doing this, you give yourself more wiggle room for when there might be delays. You can also update your stakeholders when you become more confident after an event has happened. 

5. Highlight risks paired with options 

There are always risks, dependencies and issues that crop up. By highlighting these upfront, you allow stakeholders to gain more context and ultimately guide you to a better outcome. Depending on the stakeholder, they will likely be running their risk assessment and trying to understand if they need to adjust their strategy or teams to produce the best outcome. 

The 'obvious' risks that you might be very obvious to you could not be clear to your stakeholders. So it's worth going over the most significant risks even if you feel it might be too obvious. Assumptions are your biggest enemy in the product world. 

Once you have outlined the risk, you can discuss what options you have considered and out of those options which actions you have or are going to take. Ensuring that you show your thinking in a logical manner is critical.  

6. Be honest and realistic

It sounds like a simple one, but it's probably the most important one on the list. No, I'm not calling you a liar! However, it is very easy to slightly bend the truth to show your progress in the most favourable light, particularly if it's a senior stakeholder. 

But being honest and realistic is a foundational piece that builds trust and strengthens your relationship over time. If you even slightly bend the truth over time, you become less credible. 

Narratives won't align for the next time you meet. What will appear like sudden problems or lack of progress will come out of the blue rather than with the context of other challenges you might have discussed last time.

Ultimately, you are on the same side of the table as stakeholders or metaphorical zoom call! These meetings are not a negotiation but a collaboration process for a single team to work through problems and develop creative solutions pushing forward progress.