Product Managers Give Too Much Context

Annie Dunham
Former VP of Product Management at ProductPlan


Information overload is a pre-existing condition these days. In our personal lives, we have endless streams of news stories and social media updates to scroll through. Our workplaces also overflow with facts, figures, and anecdotes that, in theory, empower us to make better decisions.

Yet, we can only absorb so much at once. We have programmed ourselves to tune out whatever seems irrelevant. This allows us to maintain our sanity.

We must balance between providing too little and too much information. Our stakeholders need just enough information to make informed decisions. And unfortunately, we’re going overboard far too often.

Conduct a Stakeholder Analysis  ➜

Making your case

As product management professionals, our success depends on our ability to convince our stakeholders to pursue particular paths. We’ve prioritized these options based on what we’ve learned from our customers and the marketplace. From those findings, we align those insights with the business’s strategic goals.

To move forward, we must make compelling and convincing cases to support these ideas. Without solid information, we can’t secure buy-in from our peers and superiors. We know hunches, emotional appeals, and personal preferences must take a backseat to data-driven decision-making and cold, hard facts.

With the best of intentions, we want to give these stakeholders context. They require a full appraisal of the situation, the various dynamics, the ramifications of action or inaction. We want them to reach the same conclusion we’ve already reached. Though, we shouldn’t assume they need the same data and learnings we used to get there.

At the same time, we want them to be independent thinkers. They should use their own autonomy to confidently reach conclusions they themselves believe in. This forces us to create a delicate balance, keeping the pendulum from swinging too far in either direction.

Less is more when it comes to context

We hear all the time that “context matters,” but there can be too much of a good thing. When we inundate stakeholders with information, a few bad things can and often do happen:

They don’t see the forest for the trees. Context comes in many shapes and sizes, and it’s easy to focus on the elements you agree with or find interesting or seem problematic. When presented with an extensive buffet of contextual elements, stakeholders can miss the big picture or give certain areas disproportionate attention and weight.

They get distracted by something non-essential. Shiny object syndrome can strike anywhere, and some stakeholders can easily latch onto a certain detail and zoom in when they should be zooming out. This might be because they’re desperately trying to poke a hole in your case because they’re not personally a fan or maybe they’d just rather go down a rathole than actually make a decision. Regardless of why, these tangents stretch the entire process out, make meetings take forever, and squash momentum.

They mentally check out. People don’t listen when there is too much information. Humans can only take in so much at once, especially when they don’t think they’re getting enough real value or benefit. When their eyes glaze over or they pick up their phone, you know you’ve lost them. After that, they’re unable to process what they’re seeing, hearing, or reading and just go through the motions, relying on instincts and previously held beliefs rather than the new information they’re receiving.

With these dangers in mind, we must instead adopt an essentialist approach to context.

Understanding Your Audience and Your Objective

Bearing in mind the risks of overwhelming your audience, the key to deciding what, how, and how much context to provide is working backward: Who is your audience and what do you want from them?

Each stakeholder, whether they’re a busy executive, a marketeer, or a seasoned sales rep, has a unique set of priorities, interests, experience, and preferences to account for. You can use a little stakeholder analysis to figure these things out and try to see the situation from their perspective.

Next, determine what it is you need from them and pre-define what constitutes success. It might be buy-in or approval for a roadmap or change request or funding, but you may also need them to actually do something new or in a different way.

If you don’t know what you need your audience to do with this new information, how can you expect them to? They must know why this matters to them and impacts their job since people also don’t listen when they don’t know how to put that context to use.

Choose Wisely and Select with Intent

From this point forward, every portion of context you dole out should be with the sole intention of getting them closer to making that decision of instituting that change. Anything extraneous only works against you.

Your product development team doesn’t need to know your buyers are price-sensitive, but your sales and marketing team do. And the executive team likely doesn’t need detailed statistics about how many people use your app on a tablet versus a smartphone, but that’s some invaluable context for the UX team.

What we edit and leave out is in some ways more important than what we leave in. As we tailor what we share and how we share it based on our different internal audiences, we must strip things down to only the crucial bits of context for that particular crowd and the business need at hand.

While this applies to discrete meetings, presentations, and emails, it extends all the way to the dashboards, reports, and automated updates we provide stakeholders. If we’re hitting them with too much irrelevant context on the regular, why should they start paying attention now? By creating limited, filtered views of data that actually matter for each cohort, we keep them focused on the most pertinent details.

Finally, you must create accountability. You can’t just give them a market overview or a tour of personas or an update on a new technology. You must set the stage before presenting all that context by explaining what they’re supposed to do with that information and then finish up by reiterating the action items and deadlines.

Tell Them with a Story

One way to limit context overload is to present information as a story. But we’re not writing a novel or meandering fluff piece, this is a straight-to-the-point fact-rich account with a clear call to action.

Relying on the inverted pyramid structure, the most important information is always first. Since the reader might stop at any point (not to mention an editor lopping off the end of the story for space or brevity), storytellers don’t get the luxury of tossing in colorful anecdotes and descriptions or sprinkling in interesting but non-essential asides. There’s still a narrative, but after a few paragraphs, everyone gets the gist and knows what comes next.

Consider sharing your context with the same ruthless approach. What must they know to make an informed decision and what’s expected of them next? If they want more details, they can ask for them, but you need to keep it short, sweet, and simple.

It might feel like you’re depriving them of immersing themselves in all you’ve learned. You may also be concerned you’re not giving a hard enough sell. But in reality, you’re giving them just enough to grant them informed autonomy, facilitating the decisions and actions the product needs without bogging them down with extraneous embellishments.

With this stingy-but-sufficient approach, each stakeholder has the context they need to decide or act and you get the results you set out to achieve. Save the rest for the water cooler.

Start Roadmapping Your Change Management Plan➜