The Importance of Alignment in Product Management
On this episode, Jonathan Hensley, the CEO and Chief Product Officer at EMERGE and author of Alignment: Overcoming Internal Sabotage and Digital Product Failure, discusses why alignment is critical to product success, and what teams can do to become more aligned.
We discuss four types of alignment:
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Intro (the incomparable Sandra Segrest) 00:03
Welcome to Product Voices, a podcast where we share valuable insights and useful resources to help us all be great in product management. Visit the show's website to access the resources discussed on the show, find more information on our fabulous guests or to submit your product management question to be answered in our special q&a episodes. That's all at product voices.com. And be sure to subscribe to the podcast on your favorite platform. Now, here's our host, JJ Rorie, CEO of Great Product Management.
Hello, and welcome to Product Voices. It's gonna be a great conversation today about alignment and product management. We use that term a lot alignment, are we aligned is a strategically aligned are the groups aligned with each other? Well, we're gonna dig into what that means. Again, we tend to use terminology sometimes, and maybe don't even realize that we're defining it differently across the organization and don't really get to the crux of what this means. So we all know that product management is inherently cross functional, there are lots of moving parts. So true alignment is critical for success in product management. So it's gonna be a great conversation. today. My guest is Jonathan Hensley. Jonathan is CEO and Chief Product Officer at emerge a digital product agency. He's also the author of alignment, overcoming internal sabotage and digital product failure. Jonathan, thanks for joining me.
Thank you so much for having me, JJ.
Yeah, I'm looking forward to our discussion. So first, just tell me what led you to write the book? Was it something you were seeing with organizations, clients you were working with, or something else?
Well, it started years and years ago, where I had been in so many situation where I'd seen really incredible product teams struggling to deliver. And I remember one, one particular instance, where I was sitting in a conference room is I live in Oregon, so it was probably a rainy day was cold, and the tension in the room was awful. I mean, you could just tell that people were so frustrated and overwhelmed. And their product initiative, after years had become misaligned. And this vacuum of leadership had developed. And people were just frustrated, and they were overwhelmed. Some were trying to distance themselves from the work. And I was just sitting there in disbelief that after all of these years of effort and collaboration, that this could be even possibly happening. And so I became obsessed with understanding, why do products fail? And why do companies fail and being able to consistently deliver great products? And so, you know, what are the signs of that failure? And how do we prevent and overcome failure as as leaders and product teams, and that really came then to fruition when I decided to, you know, really do an extensive research into the topic interviewing, probably 1000 Plus product, you know, team members, from designers and engineers to product management and leaders and just trying to understand, like, what was being done consistently, it was either leading to failure, and what was happening, when they were beating the odds and delivering a great high valued product. And alignment was at the core of that. And so that became the inspiration for the book and deciding that there's something really big here, and fundamental that has to be talked about.
I love it, I love it. And that's usually how these types of thought leadership pieces, right, your book, as an example come come to fruition is, you see a problem, right? I mean, your book is a product, right? Then you see the problem in the market and things that we talk about and don't quite understand. And and then, you know, you solve that problem with with your thought leadership books. So I love that.
Before we jump into some details about types of alignment and defining alignment, and that sort of thing, just set the stage for me and your introduction in terms of talking about why the book was written. We got into this a little bit, but tell me why, in your opinion, alignment is so important to product management, I guess, alignments important across any business but but true alignment is is really foundational to successful product management. Why is that?
That's a great question. And there's a lot of pieces to the answer of that one. I think that great product managers are masterful at being able to align. People processes, and innately are problem solvers. They're they're passionate about the problems that they're solving. And the best product managers that I've ever worked with are in love with a problem are solving not the solution. And that keeps this natural curiosity and continuous learner, you know, spirit alive in these these wonderful people, you know developing these products. In order though to produce outcomes, we have to be really skilled and have intimate knowledge of alignment and how do we build alignment across all the different facets that enable a product to be successful? Or is the strategy aligned with the with a company's mission? Is that strategy aligned to the organization's resources and constraints? Are those things being established where there's a product culture that empowers people to actually solve problems effectively? Are we extending that into how we build alignment in how we think about, for example, like stakeholder management, I mean, there's all of these different facets where alignment becomes a critical skill set for product managers. And I think that this is just an absolute necessity. And more than ever, today as the ecosystems for products is getting more and more complicated, not less, because a lot of the low hanging fruit of the last decade around the application side of things is now being reinvented, as it always is in technology. And so I think there's a lot of evolution of now we've created a lot of enabling capabilities to allow us to solve bigger problems faster at scale. And that requires more alignment in order to make that possible. Yeah, great points. So I want to dig in now a little bit about the four types of alignment that you talked about in the book, individual, team, organizational and market. So let's start with individual tell me more about what alignment means there. Sure. So the first one is, as you said, is individual alignment, which means understanding how your work contribution matters, why you're doing it, and what it what impact that has.
This is really important. When we talk about empowering the individual in a team. It's also never been more important when you think about supporting an individual's engagement, focus and productivity. So it this really leads to also increases in job satisfaction and retention, which are major issues for organizations today, as well. So this individual connection or purpose to our work is really essential, and product management, and product leadership require that connection to really unlock the full potential of their teams. And so that individual level becomes critical. I think, you know, in simple terms, also, you can talk about it as like, it's like a car, right? You know, if you, your car runs more smoothly, when you know, every year it's in alignment, it requires less energy to go faster and further. And when you're, you know, is misaligned, everything's takes, it's harder. And you know, and everything takes longer. And so we're really looking to how do we, you know, really empower the individual and a team in order to provide their best foot forward in their work.
Yeah, that makes sense. I mean, regardless of, you know, again, we'll get to some other types of of alignment in a moment. But regardless of how aligned the organization is, and the product, or the strategy and all of that fun stuff, if there's not that individual connection, as you said to what they're doing, and the purpose of their work to the the overall, you know, mission and that connection to the to the mission of the company. There really can be, you know, that that organizational drag and individual drag and everything, just just taking more energy. I love how you how you use that analogy. So love that that makes a lot of sense. And I don't think we think about that enough or talk about that enough. When we when we discuss alignment. At least it may be it's my bias, but I think more about organizational alignment, all of those moving parts. But I think it's really important to start with the individual. So I'm glad that you've, you've identified that because I think that's that's really a key point to being able to do the other types of alignment, right.
It's not only a huge facet of doing all levels of alignment, but when we think about critical elements of being able to for example, collaborate. Alignment is really essential to that being able to effectively communicate with one another is, you know, a factor of alignment. Being able to, you know, recognize where we can make decisions and where where we've been in been empowered and when we need to enter reduce our colleagues or, you know, there's a potential bigger ramification, it helps us also identify, you know, areas of the, you know, there's known unknowns and those the unknown unknowns that we're always dealing with and product. And so we have to understand, you know, what our contribution is from a value based versus a roles and responsibilities basis. And that's, you know, I have yet to find anything that can be more impactful to transforming the product culture of an organization, then starting at that individual level, where people really feel heard and valued. It just it's an incredible shift and how the work gets done. And the quality of the product is represented immediately when that connection or that level of alignment exists.
Yeah, I think that's so important. I'm so glad we started there. Because again, I think that I think it's a gap in the way that most organizations and most even individuals themselves, think about it, right, they don't realize there's a misalignment with with our within ourselves. And so I think that's really important. So now let's move to the next one team. What does team alignment mean? Why is that so important?
So team alignment is all about building alignment with others, so groups can move ahead. Collectively, it's the idea of integrating unique disciplines, experiences, perspectives, so that we can solve problems as a team, identifying new opportunities responding to change, making sure that we understand that and how we're going to approach developing the product with a clear path forward. I think the the key there is, is that we have to shift the the culture from a y ni to a y we mentality of giving everyone a shared purpose. And so at the team level of alignment, we're really shifting to like now we know for at an individual level, how you contribute, and how that value will make a difference to the organization to customers, and to the success of the product. at the team level, when we're in a why we that shared purpose that collective competence that is developed, is is brought together. And that becomes really, that's really where the magic and in a business and organization really takes place. It's that collective piece that happens. So when you hear leaders talking about what our biggest asset is, our is our people. Absolutely, and aligned team is unstoppable. But if that's lacking, then you have tremendous challenges and the organization to be, you know, in many cases even viable, especially for young startups.
Yeah. And I see, in some cases, it almost seems like if the team is aligned, and everything is running smoothly, you don't think about it, you don't realize it, it's I mean, it's just happening and things are things are working, right. And that's it kind of becomes invisible, if you will, maybe because it doesn't take so much energy, it doesn't take so much work. It just it just works, it just clicks, right is the is the saying. Whereas again, to your point, if if things aren't so aligned, just seems like everything's a little more difficult. And I'm gonna get to a question in a minute about how we identify some things. But I think we're kind of touching, touching on on some of these here about, you know, signs of misalignment. But before we get there, let's, let's keep talking. So we've talked about individual and team very important. Now, let's talk about organizational alignment. What does that mean?
Well, I think, you know, organizational and you touched on this a little bit earlier, right? Is it reflects the organization's larger vision, strategic priorities, expertise and understanding they're known constraints. And the idea of organizational alignment is really how are we setting up the foundation for the work of the organization and how we deliver the value or the promise to our customers that we've committed to. This is really an important shift, because if an organization is misaligned, it's essentially at war with itself. It doesn't have the strength and focus to survive in today's marketplace. So it's very, you know, essential when you look at an organization that the environment for the work to be done is really, you know, well thought through, and many times the isolation or siloing, that happens in organizations is a really good indicator. You know, I know we're going to talk a little bit more about that, but especially at the organization level, when things are potentially at risk. And I highlight that here because I think that oftentimes we look at product teams or product initiatives and kind of somewhat these insulated scenarios where we don't recognize maybe who some of our stakeholders are, and some of the work to be done. And in the highest performing product cultures that I've experienced anyhow, every one, every function is actually aligned to understanding how they contribute to the product success. So whether you're on the financing side of the business, or you're on the product side, and you know, designing a great experience, or you're, you know, sitting there in customer service, everyone understands what key role they play, to delivering the value to the customer. And so have the organization, when aligned, does not have priorities or metrics for functions of the business that are in conflict. And so that really establishes, you know, a much different work environment in space that is incredibly powerful and efficient. For for organizations.
Yeah, I love that word efficient, because I think that's one of the ways that alignment manifests itself, right, we just, we just, we just run, you know, we just we just click, as I said, But we, you know, things just tend to be efficient. Not always. But but that's a good, good way to describe it. And so this final one is another one similar to individual that I believe we don't talk enough about or think enough about, I think team alignment or organizational alignment. That's where most of you know, our work or thought goes into it in my experience. But market alignment. This one's really interesting to find this for us talk to talk to me about market alignment, what that is and why that's so important.
Yeah. So market alignment deals with understanding your customer or end users needs, what problem you're solving the impact of that problems, and the hurdles you face. And especially if you're going to create a solution relevant to that problem, what is the reoccurring value to that solution that you're investing into. So oftentimes, this is also referred to as market fit to, but many times Market Fit gets, I think, over simplified down to like a value proposition and Product Marketing, versus the actual core value that's been created in the product itself. And I think it's, it's really important not to oversimplify how critical this is to any product success. So it's why I put an emphasis around the alignment aspect, that is, to me much, it's the umbrella to all of that that has to take place. Within market alignment, there's an interesting value gap that also is really important to recognize and understand is that there's two types of value that we create when we create any product. And that's there's a psychological value, and there's a functional value to that product, we have to be aware of both. Those are things that drive decision making product stickiness, it influences our product sense and connection, it helps make sure that we're not falling into industry bias and groupthink on things, because we're hyper focused on the value point of creation, which automatically will drive differentiation. And so these things become, you know, very key as for any product manager to be able to really have, I think, a commanding knowledge of and become a subject matter expert, you know, within the space of market alignment, and how that can inform and support their team and their product success.
Yeah, I think what I love about this the most is that you can, you know, when you are defining market alignment, obviously, we, we in product, we do a lot of that right, but But to your point about calling it Market Fit sometimes, which is a thing, and very, very important, but, but maybe not enough, again, I don't think we think about it as truly aligning to the market. And and I think that's important, and maybe maybe it's just semantics, but I think it's an important way to kind of, you know, parameterize, if you will, our thinking and our actions in a way that forces us to ensure that we're not taking things for granted that we're not doing things even though if we you know, maybe we think they're the right things and maybe we're actually you know, doing some some good things but if we're not truly kind of touching base and and ensuring that continuous alignment, true alignment to the market. I think maybe that we missed the boat sometimes. So I think that's what I liked most about this particular part of your thought leadership is that it it forces us into thinking about it and doing it maybe in the right way and formal more formally than just some of the activities that happen along the way, if that makes sense.
It completely makes sense. And it actually reminds me of a specific piece, you know, I was having a conversation with a product leader group not too long ago, and most of them had started early in their careers through product management, all coming from different directions, some from kind of more of an engineering background, some of the, you know, more of a business analyst and some even from Product Marketing. And it was a really wonderful conversation, and we were talking about this idea of connection with your customer. And the challenge that you can have in finding market alignment or market fit is, you know, what's that unmet need? What's that space that I can operate in? And where do I have maybe insider experience and expertise that can be leveraged to, you know, connect with that audience? And most of the discussion was emphasized around this idea of, well, you know, what features, what functions can I create, what can I do that's different.
And I let the room talk for a little while, and then we step back, and we use the example of Toyota and Volvo. And, and it's this issue of like, well, they both make cars, functionally, it's very difficult to differentiate between the two. And the outcome of getting in a car and going from point A to point B, is, is, you know, it's relatively the same. Maybe one's more comfortable, depending on your preferences, you know, to a degree, but is it really serving a different market. And when we think about market alignment, both companies have done something they've aligned to a very specific need, that's completely different. There, there's very little actual direct competition taking place. And I'll explain what I mean by that. Volvo has focused on the market alignment around safety. And they're known for that. And so their psychological value is safety, safety for the individual safety for the family. And then they produce a car that's functionally made to based on that promise. Whereas Toyota sells to an entirely different need, and space of the market, which is reliability. And safety is table stakes for reliability, but the connection they're making is on that idea of reliability. And so functionally, they might be very similar. But psychologically, they're completely different. And so they're allowed to exist in the market as two very large, very successful companies, tapping an entirely different spectrum of the market that's met and needed in very different ways. So all of a sudden, you have Volvo competing against the psychology of safety, who is who else is providing that. And Toyota versus reliability, it's not a direct comparison of features, you know, and so, in technology, I think it's really important that we, we separate that because alignment has to come at both the functional and the psychological need, we are actually disconnected from the true opportunity within the market, if we don't understand both. And so that market alignment, that broader picture becomes so powerful for an organization to really tap into where they can specifically make an impact.
Yeah, it's such a great example. I love that story. I love that example. It because again, it forces us we've, we focus so much in as as a business and as a as product teams to find problems, right. And we think if we find those problems, and we've we've succeeded, but the second piece to that is, you know, is that a problem that we are positioned to, you know, uniquely solve? Or is it a problem that we want to solve? Or are there pieces of the problem that we are more uniquely positioned to solve and can win in the marketplace. So I love that, again, love, love this part of, you know, your analysis and thoughts on alignment, because I think there are just pieces that we miss here. And I think it's really, really important.
So So let's now turn to some things that we've kind of alluded to and mentioned before, but I want to talk specifically about ways that organizations can recognize or realize that there is some misalignment we've talked about, you know, if there are silos, that may be an indication or, you know, just, you know, things just taking longer and more energy and that sort of thing, but but what other signs, do you the you see in organizations that if if a leadership team, if an organization, even a product team sees they can realize that maybe it's it's all about alignment, maybe we can do some work there to get us back on track.
Well, I think I mean, there's so many indicators of this at different levels. But I'll focus on just a couple with the time that we have that I think are are easily identifiable by no matter where you sit in the organization or in within the product org. The first one is if there's consistent overruns of cost or timelines, there's you can usually very quickly start to diagnose and find out are, is there misalignment on the delivery in the delivery space of executing on the product? Or was there an actual miss much earlier on? And is there actually been misalignment in the product definition or product discovery work that was happening that actually led to the direction of the product itself, these become pretty easy to actually trace back fairly quickly if you understand what to look for. So that's probably the lowest hanging fruit because it's the most commonly looked at lagging indicator. But there's usually some, if it's a consistent pattern, there's an issue of misalignment almost always happening somewhere there that needs to be assessed.
The second one I would say is, and where I usually like to start with, with any team is to say, let's look at your your product vision, and then the strategy that follows it. And the reason I say that is because I think the you and I were talking a little bit about this before we got started today is, you know, the idea of of strategy or vision is there's a lot of thoughts about it that are out there, but not a lot of codification of like, well, what does make what makes a vision great. And so you have a lot of misinformation and a lot of opinion based information. And if you distill that all down on a vision, like people will tell you, uh, well, a vision needs to be aspirational, we need to inspire our team. You know, it's, that's one facet of it. But a vision needs to be crystal clear. It's essentially, what's the destination? What are we trying to achieve long term, and being able to clearly articulate not only what it is how we're going to measure that progress towards that vision, and understanding the benefit of the user. So when I see the lack thereof of a completed vision statement, I can almost always trace back that there's misalignment. And one of the easiest ways to do that is to just have conversations with people tell me what is the actual vision for this product? And if I go talk to five people, I'll get five different answers. And it's very common to based on where they sit in the organization. If I ask what's the intended outcome for the user, versus the business, that usually can't be answered either. And this is happens more often than I would like to ever admit. But the lack of alignment on just that fundamental piece, it has a domino effect. decisions are being made in the product that isn't necessarily always moving towards the near term outcome, which are critical to realizing long term vision and goals for the organization. And so that's where you start to see a lot of those cost overruns, or missed expectations, timelines getting delayed, which lead to a lot of work team frustration, right team, you know, gets, you know, it's like, well, we're, why are we continuously solving this problem again, and again, because we never created the value, or we didn't solve the problem in the right way. And so this rework happens if, if the, you know, if you ship at all, you know, that that can happen, too.
So, you know, these are just a couple of examples. You know, another one I like to look at is, you know, how do you actually support the scaling up of your team? So, what's the knowledge base of the product? So, a lot of times the knowledge management aspects is is kind of a left out piece. And so, you know, how is that being managed? How do I help people understand that what is each flow of a product intended to do? What's the intent? What what is success for the for the customer user, you know, look like, what's the outcome for the business, if that happened successfully, so I can understand the behaviors and motivations of my users, not what they do, but why they do it. And that's really important. And those things become beautiful indicators that start to paint a very detailed and intimate picture of where there might be friction in the process or misalignment. That's, you know, holding the the team back.
Yeah, it does make a lot of sense. Final question I want I want to talk to you about is when you see those misalignments when you realize that that there's some improvement to be done, what are some things that you've you found that individuals, teams or organizations can do to do To improve that alignment.
So I think the I have a couple of favorites. So probably no surprise to anybody listening. But the first one is to get that vision, right? I think it's, it's so essential, you know, you don't build, you know, a house or a building on top of a shaky foundation. And I do believe that it is essential to have a strong product vision, because it's the aim, it's the North Star, it anchors your strategy, there might be 10 ways to solve the problem that you're trying to solve. But maybe there's only one or two right ways to do it. Based on the capabilities of the organization, the insight, the customers, you're you're focusing on. And we want to make sure that we are constantly, you know, enhancing our ability to deliver on that value, even if it's through experimentation, or, you know, careful, like directed inside, I think that's really key. And so, getting everybody to one, understand that vision, and then being able to make sure that they understand how they contribute to that vision. So going back to that individual alignment, that's, that's a really critical piece, because we can now look at this, if this is the big outcome, now I can have a conversation of how you fit into that vision, and why that's so important. And if I'm looking at only what's in front of me, it becomes very, we just need to ship X, Y, and Z. And it doesn't really help me understand as an individual, what the organization is really invested into doing. And where my work starts to make an impact, you know, day over day, week over week, and so that that becomes I think key to building out alignment across all functions.
Another one that I really love is what I would call a shared language. I think that this is an interesting aspect that that I see quite often. And I think product managers are the absolute best people to be the stewards of this, inside of these teams, I think they have an uncanny gift and ability of where they sit in the product or to do this. But what I mean by by a common language and understanding is that you know, every industry, we have our own acronyms, we have our own language of things. And what we don't do, though, is verify that we have a shared understanding of what those things mean. And that has a huge impact on collaboration, and the effectiveness of communication. And so if you're an organization, for example, I'm sure we've all been there work, we constantly have meetings, for meetings sake, it feels like our we're like, Wait, didn't we just have a meeting about this last week? It's usually because somebody didn't feel heard or understood, right, we didn't actually address the thing that needed to be addressed in order to move forward. And there's a fundamental breakdown happening in the communication, we all think we're speaking the same language, but we're really not, and certainly not with that understanding. So a really easy example is, you know, just as simple as like for a large organization might be just the definition of a customer. So the customer for the product may be different than the buyer of the product, you know, the differentiate between buyer and user. It may be that the finance team, as an example is thinking, well, the customer is the person that pays the bill, which could be different than the actual person making the purchase decision or the user. And so you start to get this very complex system of every function of the business has a different lens on who their customers, customer support is thinking about the people that they support. And it makes sense, but what we have to do is we have to really make sure that we're taking ownership of this language, and this understanding, and we have to have a process of verification in the way that we communicate in the way that we collaborate. You know, one of my simplest things that I like to do is in a meeting, I'll step back and I'll be like, after I share something, I'll be like, What did you hear, and I'll just have them say it back to me in their own words, so that I can make sure that we are on the same page, maybe I didn't do a good enough job explaining it, maybe the way I perceived it was different than they did. And now they're adding something that's going to completely enrich my perspective. And I can do something better now. And we can come to a better definition or understanding of that thing. Or maybe we have to course correct and we can address that then. But what that does is that speeds up the ability to collaborate effectively. We are building alignment continuously, and micro interactions and the way that we operate in every facet of our day, both individually team and at the organization level by bringing in those little practices. And that becomes an incredible powerful accelerator for performance in organizations. And those are just two quick things that I love to see organizations focus on first, that are often some of the easiest things to address.
Yeah, that's amazing. Such great advice I love the the kind of foundational get the vision right? Not always easy but but do the work to get it right and then I love the communication. You know, I'm a big believer in that and being concise and connecting with your audience and love that practical tip. What did you hear? That's that's a really good way to make sure that that connection and that clarity is there so awesome. Such such good advice.
Jonathan Hensley. This has been a wonderful conversation. Thank you so much for joining me and, and sharing your vast wisdom on the subject.
Well, thank you so much for having me. It's been a been an absolute pleasure, JJ.
And everyone go get the book alignment, overcoming internal sabotage and digital product failure. You will learn a lot more from Jonathan through the book again, Jonathan. Thanks for joining me and thank you everyone for listening to product voices. Hope to see you on the next episode.
Outro (the incomparable Sandra Segrest) 35:58
Thank you for listening to Product Voices hosted by JJ Rorie. To find more information on our guests resources discussed during the episode or to submit a question for our q&a episodes, visit the show's website productvoices.com And be sure to subscribe to the podcast on your favorite platform.