Getting aligned and staying aligned

Great product teams get aligned and stay aligned

David Standen 

One of the greatest challenges working in companies is getting aligned and staying aligned. To be able to move quickly towards a vision, all product teams including strategy, design and development need to be all aligned. Alignment on the big and small tickets help teams work more efficiently and collectively as a team it’s much easier to move forward. But staying aligned is more challenging for companies that are going through shifts in their ways of working to achieve high cost saving initiatives and to become more efficient.

What happens when you don’t align?

If you get the strategic direction of a team wrong, it doesn’t matter how fast you’re moving if you’re building the wrong thing. You’re still building the wrong thing. And it’s an important point to recognise that organisations that focus purely on creating output are heading down a road that is full of twists and turns that can be avoided.

“It doesn’t matter how fast you’re moving if you’re building the wrong thing”

Some companies choose to approach new product development as a free-fall and parachute in by relying on their core technology to get into the air and parachute down and slip straight into a market and expect customers to come knocking. Success through this approach will only happen by chance since the elements of weather can throw the free-falling skydiver off target giving them only one chance to hit the target.

“The longer you leave it, the harder it is to get back on track”

Without a clear strategic alignment, you will find your product has become a mix of bolt on features that are disconnected and struggle to deliver any business value. The longer you leave it the harder it is to get back on track and the more technical debt you create as a result. 

A direct result of misalignment manifests in a number of ways. 

  • Scaling teams become difficult because you have no idea of demand. 
  • Capacity planning is hard because you don’t have an idea of what’s coming or what to do next. 
  • Reactive ways of working and constant rework because there is a lack of focus.
  • People lose heart and become demotivated making the environment toxic.


If you’re experiencing any of the above take a look at how as a team you can step back and become better aligned and understand the causes and pressures.

How can you achieve team alignment?

One of the biggest comparisons I can draw on and also many others have used the same analogy is that product design and development is a rock climb not a free fall – I recommend watching ‘The Dawn Wall’ on Netflix and also the film ‘Free Solo’. Co-director E Chai Vasarhelyi describes Free Solo as “This climb is really about the process of moving through fear,”. In both films you observe the climbers meticulously preparing for their climbs, and the more prepared you are for the climb the better the climb and higher chances of success. Climbers spent months upon months studying the climbs to navigate difficult rock surfaces to plan key routes and alternate routes, every step in building up to the climb is planned and executed in pitches, which when compared to product design and development is very similar to product planning and executing in sprints.

Here are some ways of being able to shift behaviours and bring better alignment in teams:

  • Use research to help focus on what is good for the customer
  • Build customer empathy in product teams to focus on the right thing
  • Feed customer feedback to product backlog and prioritise what value will this add
  • Give teams the autonomy to be able to manage priorities as long as they focus on business goals
  • Focus on aligning business objectives to desired outcomes for a customer.

     

Give teams a direction, something to strive for

People work better together when we’re all working towards the same thing, so it’s important at a team level and at a company level to have a strategic vision where objectives can be shaped to drive performance and results. Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) is a well established approach for teams to focus their efforts towards creating better outcomes not just for the customer but also for the entire organization.

By relating to a strategic product roadmap and creating themes around objectives that don’t necessarily define a feature, but rather frame around business problems, we can match objectives to desired outcomes. This then helps teams deliver against the company strategy and vision.

Company vision – Have a idealistic future view of your company

Company strategy – Have a strategy on how you are going to get there 

Product vision – Have a team vision against the shared company vision

Product strategy – Have a strategic product roadmap to deliver on the vision

Objectives – Have clear objectives that help execute on the roadmap

Themes / Goals – Have multiple themes from different angles to help achieve objectives

Features – Create user stories for new features and improvements 

Experiments – Create experiments to optimise what moves the needle

Image source: https://www.productboard.com/blog/align-your-product-roadmap-to-your-company-strategy/

Align your team around the people whose problems they solve

It’s extremely important to see your product through the eyes of the end customer, and a great way to do this is by making time to research with customers even if it’s rough and ready. Light touch research can reveal some unknown truths which could be highly valuable for your product and business.

Create multiple feedback loops this customers and other internal teams that work directly with customers will really help teams to uncover and respond to expectations. Get designers to sit closely with sales teams and gather feedback or even sit closely with support or other customer facing teams.

If your organisation operates in silos, a great way to break down silos is to invite people from customer facing teams into brainstorming sessions and into critiques. What this does is to help those teams step back and forces siloed teams from being bias towards their own agendas. Team should try and speak in the language of end customers and frame tasks in user narratives and goals. This shift in ways of working  is about a change in and embracing a culture of openness, learning from each other and agility.

If you have other suggestions on helping teams to start getting better aligned and staying aligned it would be great to hear your thoughts.

© 2020 David Standen