Alignment—A Little-Understood Aspect of Product Management

By Michael Taylor, Frank Tait September 17, 2009

The Pragmatic Marketer Magazine Volume 7 Issue 3Peter Drucker said it best:

The aim of marketing is to know and understand the customer so well
that the product or service fits him and sells itself.'

What Drucker describes in terms of knowing and understanding the customer is often called alignment. This article provides a foundation for the concept of alignment and relates it to several key components of the Pragmatic Institute Framework™.

Become an alignment coordinator

In many cases, product managers can also be considered alignment coordinators between our companies and our markets. In that capacity, we foster alignment in two ways:

  • Internal alignment across our departmental functions and managerial teams, required to craft endorsed, winning business cases that help us secure funding and resources to build and maintain products and services
  • External alignment between our internal perspective and the external markets, based on accurate understanding of market needs and proper positioning that addresses segment needs, so we can meet and exceed sales targets and deliver return on investment in the business case

The marketer’s dilemma is to understand and optimize the degree of alignment in three ways: within the organization…within the market…and between the two.
And you wondered why your job was so challenging.

Alignment management

We instinctively recognize the word “alignment,” but what is alignment management and how do we optimize it? There are four categories of thought which drive alignment:

  • Goals (G)
  • Unintended Consequences (U)
  • Barriers (B)
  • Assumptions (A)
Guba Model
GUBA Model

In most companies, building a business case focuses first on defining G and determining how to achieve those goals—the tangible, physical actions on the line from A to G. This is the fun, advancing, innovative conversation—where no one can be wrong. Unfortunately, differing perspectives about A and hidden problems in B and U silently restrain progress.

As product managers, we instinctively focus on taking action to produce our desired outcomes (G), and fail to adequately consider the negative unintended consequences (U). We later explain U away as “not my fault.”

Too much optimism and not enough realism in the design phase often stifles the ability to acknowledge issues and barriers (B), thereby reducing commitment to the project and hurting your ability-to-execute.

The drive to be action-oriented—to get to G—and impatience to “waste time” discussing the current state beyond a few headlines, means that A also receives short-shrift. Yet the underlying assumptions (A) are the first principles for any strategy, plan, or decision.

Simply put, when the initial planning meetings are over, the leaders spend too much time advocating the value of G and don’t balance this with sufficient inquiry into others’ views of A, U, and B.

As a result, when leaders see symptoms of misalignment, they treat it by trying to “compress the G cloud” (scope compression); when, in fact, the root to misalignment is at the beginning—when differing views of A are not sufficiently aired.

Alignment is not binary

In most business cultures, alignment is considered a yes/no state, we’re either aligned or we aren’t. In fact, on a scale of 0 to 100, where 100 is complete alignment, every group measured has been between 44 and 83.

On average, a group has 40 underlying assumptions (A) about a topic, yet only 7 are initially agreed to by all. As many are divergent, and the remaining 28 suffer incomplete agreement. As our views of G, U and B are derived from A, no wonder we have so much struggle getting the best result when we haven’t fully baselined the conversation.

Of the 66 ways a group will, on average, define success (G), only 15 enjoy natural agreement; the remaining 51 require time and effort to resolve the misalignments.

The other side of this coin is that while a group might readily identify their 66 aspirations and desires, they also foresee 61 restraints to being successful (U and B). Rather than understanding these at the outset, these “negative” conversations surface during decision-making and implementation.

Optimizing alignment

The product manager’s goal is to understand the degree of alignment present for each initiative, reinforce the alignments, and resolve the misalignments in order to rapidly converge on actions that will enjoy the greatest endorsement, internally and in the market.

As an example, consider the case of a global IT outsourcing firm and one of its major clients. The outsourcer was four years into a seven-year contract with the client, and wanted to optimize alignment around the definition of success for the remainder of the contract period. The conversation centered on how to produce and measure that success. Collaborating with their client, the outsourcer developed a new “success scorecard.”

What’s most interesting is that two-thirds of the items on the new success scorecard were not part of their original Service Level Agreement. But they were made a priority for the balance of the contract.

This alignment initiative demonstrated a healthy, collaborative partnership between the outsourcer and the client and greatly increased the likelihood that the contract would be renewed.

Using alignment to understand the market

Most product managers allocate customers and prospective customers into segments that identify what members of that set want and how they will act relative to our product. When we realize that we’re trying to optimize alignment to produce coordinated action, we can bring in the four elements of the GUBA model.

Once we understand the model’s individual people, organizations, and our traditional demographic segments, we can then leverage collective intelligence to completely redesign our segments.

By using alignment algorithms, it is possible to identify those who share a common set of desired outcomes to advance from a common starting point but with similar concerns over the barriers to attaining those outcomes. This is a unique “action cluster,” where the members come from more than one of the product manager’s pre-defined segments.

We can do three things with these new action clusters:

  • Map existing features and potential enhancements to their common G state, and use a collaborative design process to have the people in this cluster participate in the design of the mitigating actions and innovations to remove the barriers (U and B) to using the product or service.
  • Assess the ROI of implementing these solutions and satisfying the desired outcomes of each action cluster separately, confident that our decisions are driven from data about the thinking that drives their action.
  • Choose to invest in optimizing our alignment to a specific action cluster and uniquely craft our positioning statement and messaging to each action cluster—confident that we are addressing the four categories of thought that drive their actions.
Using alignment to break roadblocks

Of course, product managers often encounter unforeseen roadblocks as they attempt to do their jobs. Here’s a real-world example of how we leveraged collaboration and alignment to overcome those challenges.

Six government clients wanted to join together with a software company to upgrade a client-server product to Web 2.0. By law, they could not sign the same agreement. They kept hitting roadblock after roadblock. The roadblocks were a symptom of the misalignments.

At that point, the solution was almost a year behind schedule, and it seemed that the contract situation might require an additional six to nine months to get this long-overdue product upgrade off the ground.

To breakthrough this roadblock, we brought together 28 key stakeholders to participate in resolving this problem. The participants came from all areas: IT, functional user departments, senior management, product management, product engineering, sales, client services, customer support, and finance.

Within 30 days, the group had collaborated to identify the key areas of alignment and misalignment—and held four focused conference calls to address the key areas of misalignment.

As a group, they collaboratively changed the product requirements, build schedule, service and training plans, and key contract provisions. By the end of the quarter, contracts were signed and the product upgrade was underway.

Conversation and collaboration

How do we foster alignment and create coordinated action among our internal teams and our markets? Simply put, we need to balance advocacy with inquiry. Conversation is the alignment coordinator’s primary tool, and it becomes the foundation for collaboration.

In their 2007 report on The Impact of Collaboration on Business Performance, Frost and Sullivan cite “that collaboration is twice as significant as a company’s aggressiveness in pursuing new market opportunities (strategic orientation) and five times as significant as the external market environment (market turbulence).”

When people collaborate, they are assembling a “database of opinion,” which they then use as the basis for their future actions. The outcome is the combination of their internal thinking and their interpretation of the conversations among others about the topics most relevant to them.

One of the keys to collaboration is the concept of safety. People are only willing to share their thinking where they perceive that it is safe to do so. Your model for conversation and collaboration must provide for data gathering where the identity of the person sharing their thinking is kept confidential, internally and externally.

So what does this mean to you as a product manager?

Here are ten key takeaways that we hope will open your eyes to a whole new way of looking at the role of product managers:

  1. Recognize that “Alignment Coordinator” is part of your role as a product manager.
  2. Recognize that there are three core alignments you are attempting to optimize and synchronize:
    • Within the market
    • Within your organization
    • Between the market and your organizations
  3. All of your discussions—both internally and externally—are collaborations that will advance the product from A to G on the GUBA model. Yes, product management is an art; but it’s also a process that can, and should be measured and managed, just like all other business processes.
  4. Discussions of new product creation, enhancement, retirement, market adoption, and penetration are all GUBA-based collaborative dialogues.
  5. The core to the answer is first understanding A—shared assumptions.
  6. Great impact can come from better balancing advocacy (the value of the action) with inquiry (the barriers to action, the reasons for inaction).
  7. Remind yourself that alignment is not binary—you are not right, and they are not wrong. The two of you are just misaligned.
  8. Recognize the symptoms of misalignment, such as inaction.
  9. Measure alignment to identify the root causes of misalignment, and focus conversations to optimize alignment.
  10. Recognize that alignment is a state that changes over time as needs and people evolve, and that you need to periodically re-measure and re-optimize.

As a product manager, you can use the principles of alignment to strengthen your product and its appeal to specific target segments. Plus you can leverage the concepts of collaboration and coordinated action to help ensure that your product “sells itself.”

 

Want to learn more about alignment? Attend Pragmatic Institute's courses.

 

Michael Taylor

Michael Taylor

Michael Taylor is co-founder and CEO of SchellingPoint —enabling multi-party groups to design and execute sustained growth and change initiatives through Alignment Optimization. Specializing in the process of alignment management, Mike has guest lectured on Alignment Dynamics at Wharton and Cornell.

Prior to forming SchellingPoint, Mike was CEO of an Indian IT firm after building SCT Manufacturing & Distribution Systems with five colleagues from Andersen Consulting, where Mike was a Director in the Products Industry, specializing in enterprise software applications. Contact Mike at mtaylor@schellingpoint.com

Frank Tait

Frank Tait

Frank Tait is the director of product management at Frontline Technologies. He is a driven business leader with more than 20 years of senior executive experience in predictably and profitably growing innovative software products and services businesses in turn-around and high-growth situations. He can be reached at franktait@me.com.

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