Some people say product management is about people, not products, and I couldn’t agree more.
As product managers, we care about end users and their needs and we spend many hours looking for opportunities to solve other people’s problems. But, do we focus enough on our internal teams? Do we ensure every single team member understands the purpose of a project and the big picture? And what happens if team alignment is lacking?
As product leaders, we’re often referred to as captains, leading the ship and crew towards deep waters and in control of the direction. But, we also need to ensure the crew is actually onboard, and not only understands where we’re going, but also participates, influences, and impacts decisions along the way.
In the previous article introducing the product anti-patterns series, we identified eight practices that can compromise your product development process. Misalignment within a product team is one of the most common anti-patterns in your quest to build a great product. When it happens, you can drift away from reaching your target destination – also known as the growth of your product and the happiness of its users.
If you’re a product manager, startup founder, or anyone who contributes to product growth, let me pinpoint how to spot first symptoms early on, what can happen when signals are ignored, and how to get on the right path when misalignment is already occurring. Not having your entire team on the same page keeps you away from the desired outcome in the agreed timeframe, and you just can’t afford for that to happen.
First signals of team misalignment
When you’re presenting a strategy or a product roadmap, have you been in a situation where you don’t get a response from the team? If that occurs, don’t assume no questions or feedback mean everything is clear. Rather, it most likely indicates the team is disconnected from the topic you’re discussing and their focus is elsewhere.
“Product management is about people, not products. Fight me.” Antoni Peychev, Senior Product Manager at Netguru
For example, it’s often been my experience that at the end of a sprint, engineering teams are mostly focused on delivering sprint goals; their full attention is on getting their tasks done before the sprint ends. If you want to discuss strategic decisions or brainstorm about product development plans, you need to arrange a meeting at the right moment to ensure the team's proper engagement. Pick a time when they can fully focus and aren’t preoccupied with adhering to ambitious deadlines for the scope they’re working on.
Confusion about priorities
At the point you feel there should be a clear vision regarding the direction for product development, there may still be conversations around what to do next. These discussions are often inspiring, but be aware that they may originate from the team not actually understanding the strategy or vision for the product.
Useful questions to ask yourself are:
- Who was involved in spotting product development opportunities?
- Was building our product roadmap a team effort?
- Did we discuss why some roadmap elements are more important than others?
Individual work over teamwork
You may discover team members are more focused on their individual work and deliverables, rather than the team's goal. That’s easily spotted at daily stand-ups, if the meeting becomes more of a status update rather than a discussion about joint efforts, blockers, and action items within the team.
Another misalignment symptom you need to be sensitive to is the general atmosphere and spirit within the team. It’s more challenging to sniff out the first signs if product teams work remotely in different parts of the world, but there are still ways to spot when something’s wrong.
For example, if people turn their cameras off, there are no jokes, or meetings are skipped, that indicate there’s an issue. Low spirit is often linked to not understanding the goal you want to achieve as a team, resulting in poor motivation and members feeling disconnected.
What can happen if team misalignment signals are ignored?
So, what happens if you don’t manage to align your team on common vision and company goals, regardless of best intentions? Well, there are a couple of things that can occur…
First of all, it’s likely you don't understand the impact your team was supposed to have. That’s even more damaging if it happens during the discovery phase, when you’re defining how to bring the most value to end users.
Being aligned on:
- Who your target audience is
- What problems you want to address and why
- How you want to achieve that
are key to delivering value to customers and the company in general. Here, everyone must be on the same page.
Second of all, when a team doesn’t communicate efficiently, the timeline for delivery may be impacted and the product may face quality issues. For instance, that happens when the frontend and backend teams don’t have a common understanding of the product features, or integrations take longer than anticipated because they weren’t initially considered on the product roadmaps of other teams you have dependencies with.
Moreover, products should be designed in a way that you can easily develop them further, iterate, and experiment. If you don’t align your team on the direction of product development, it may lead to additional effort to expand the product in the future, because some elements weren’t thought through when designing the architecture and the UI.
With some or all of those issues happening, you may end up wasting time and resources, or worst case, needing to start over.
What to do when the team misalignment anti-pattern occurs
Ok, so what should you do if you’re already in trouble? In my experience, it’s crucial to get the team talking. As a product leader, you need to have a good understanding of where a problem originates. Is it a lack of clear vision, not having a common understanding of the priorities, insufficient planning, or lack of time? Personal issues may also impact communication and cooperation.
When talking to the team, refer back to the main strategy communication tool like your roadmap, product requirements document, or even a one-page summary. However, make sure it’s an open and collaborative discussion where everyone can voice their questions.
Remember, we’re all different, and you need to create space for everyone to address their concerns, including quieter members of the team. It’s also helpful to reiterate project goals and the value the team brings, reconfirm objectives and key results (OKRs), and highlight the connection between team delivery and expected impact.
Best practices to prevent team misalignment
The best way to make sure your team has a common understanding about the goals and direction is to use a visual communication tool like a roadmap outlining the product’s strategic direction and development over time.
Organize a meeting around the roadmap to ensure your team grasps the why, what, and how of the product you’re building. Meet every couple of weeks with the team to review the tool and make adjustments based on recent progress and updates.
It’s also important to cultivate the right circumstances for your product development process. For example, if your focus is more on the discovery phase, allow room for discovery during the sprint. Or, if the engineering team is in deep work mode, make sure you plan meetings in a way that doesn’t distract them.
Moreover, it’s likely you aren’t the only product team within your company, so it’s crucial you sync with them (and their product managers) on a regular basis, to ensure your roadmaps align.
The following questions can also be helpful:
- Do you communicate your plans with other teams early enough, so they can include your stories in their backlog?
- Do you factor in the need to include other departments such as marketing, sales, customer success, and support in your planning process?
- Do you duplicate efforts and end up working on the same things as other teams?
If you don’t align across these areas, it’s likely you don’t have all the relevant information for your product’s success. It may also be the case that you’re working on a problem that’s already being dealt with by a different team, or you have dependencies with other teams that aren’t being taken into account.
Key action items to align the team
To keep your product team on the same page:
- Use your regular meetings to reiterate your strategy, vision, goals and roadmap
- Engage the team in the discovery phase, so they’re present when identifying problems and spotting opportunities for addressing them
- Build cross-functional teams to allow a proper balance for technical, creative and data-driven tasks
- Facilitate collaboration between team members – don’t make everything dependent on you
- Use tools that promote collaboration – this can be as simple as pinning key information to your Slack channel or recording a quick video to keep the team up to speed about ongoing conversations with other teams
- Have one-on-ones with team members, giving them the proper circumstances to raise concerns – particularly important for those who don’t feel confident speaking openly in a group setting
- Celebrate product successes and create circumstances that are conducive to bonding and having fun.
Wrapping up team misalignment up
Let’s be honest, creating team alignment isn’t always intuitive and requires work and guardianship. As product managers, we should cultivate the right balance between team members, and share a product vision and how that contributes to our customers' success. We need to foster an atmosphere of openness and trust, while ensuring common goals are clear and owned by the team.
All in all, team misalignment is harmful on many levels. It can divert you from meeting long-term strategic goals for your product and the company, cause delays in delivering the expected outcome, and lead to duplicated efforts. Misalignment can also impact the quality of the product. Moreover, it can make your team's life miserable. And you know what they say: Teamwork makes the dream work.