Most journeys begin with a specific destination. We pack our bags, select our mode of transportation, and set off with no intention of deviating from the plan. But our paths tend to meander unexpectedly, delaying our arrival if not completely changing our final stop.
Every time we change directions, it takes longer to get where we’re eventually going. We expend additional resources and political capital, eroding the faith and trust our colleagues, superiors, and customers placed in us.
In the world of product, nothing helps keep the team on track better than a strong product vision and a product strategy backing it up. However, accomplishing this feat becomes much more manageable when these efforts align with our colleagues’ goals and motivations.
Alignment Begets Autonomy
Few things annoy a product manager more than constant interruptions and changes to the plan. We simply want a green light for the overarching plan and charge ahead, only pausing to recalibrate when customer feedback or competitive intelligence demands it.
But when an organization falls out of alignment, those setbacks and disruptions are more likely to come from within. In our 2022 State of Product Management Report, product team autonomy was directly related to organizational alignment.
When teams were most aligned, nearly 80% of product teams felt autonomous and empowered to make their own decisions. That number fell to less than 20% in the least aligned settings.
This phenomenon impacts more than just the product team’s “feelings.” For this reason, 18% of organizations shift their priorities weekly and 37% monthly. When the ground shifts that frequently, it damages more than just the egos of the product team. It also torpedoes their credibility while sinking the morale of those doing the implementation.
How can we demand quality and excellence when we can barely make up our minds?
Create Common Incentives
Humans crave approval and seek out rewards. As individuals, it’s easy to see the cause and effect of our actions. This foresight motivates us to complete the tasks resulting in those desirable outcomes. However, groups tend to have more issues with reaching a particular goal.
Working as a team requires individual sacrifices to achieve the greater good. The basketball star who puts up 40 points a night in a string of losing efforts isn’t as valuable as the one sacrificing their own stat line to play better defense and make the extra pass to an open shooter to maximize their chances of victory. They may not get as many individual accolades and awards, but they achieved the team mission.
Since being a team player doesn’t come naturally to everyone, we must instead align individual incentives with the entire organization’s goals. This requires breaking down the product vision and translating it into themes everyone can get behind.
With key stakeholders, product leaders can map which initiatives are prioritized for the product roadmap with the objectives and key results (OKRs) the organization has prioritized for everyone. This creates a shared idea of what constitutes success. Success includes the metrics and KPIs the organization uses to measure progress. Moreover, you can evaluate team and individual performance.
Product leaders can’t expect this highly logical process to play out by itself. Truly aligning incentives across the organization requires a commitment from the executive team. They need to willingly reexamine previously held assumptions.
Goals should roll down from the top of the house, meaning executives need incentives aligned with the product vision. If the C-suite is rewarded for any vanity metric or milestone not in sync with the product vision, that disconnect will only grow as it trickles down into middle management and individual contributor goals and objectives.
Infuse the Product Roadmap with the Product Vision
Sitting at the nexus of vision and strategy, our product roadmaps must do more than just lay out a timeline. They must illustrate in a compelling fashion how executing the roadmap makes the product vision a reality.
Product roadmaps often focus on what’s being built and when it will ship. Those aren’t trivial matters. While those details must eventually be sorted out, what’s far more important is why each item is on the roadmap and the desired and expected outcomes its implementation should bring.
Everything on the product roadmap should pull the product one more step closer to realizing the product vision. Those objectives deserve top billing rather than technical details or functional specifics.
For example, supporting contactless payments sounds great, but the real motivation is removing transaction friction to increase repeat sales. The top-level product roadmap should emphasize those desired business outcomes rather than the implementation specifics.
Using the previous example, new learnings may reveal that contactless payments won’t move the needle on this matter as much as adding monthly subscriptions or supporting Venmo. A product roadmap obsessed with the “what” might view this change as a major shift, while one concentrating on the “why” sees this as a minor tweak in meeting the desired objective.
And don’t forget that putting together a phenomenal product roadmap that fully encapsulates the vision isn’t enough. Product leaders must also use all-hands meetings and individual sessions to communicate and reiterate these themes. There shouldn’t be any room for doubt about what everyone’s working toward. These live presentations were the top method for communicating product information to stakeholders, cited by 62% of our survey respondents as their go-to for spreading the word.
A clear and common product vision provides one more invaluable tool for product leaders intent on realizing that vision. It narrows the overall scope, empowering them to say “no” whenever any new idea or project distracts or delays the implementation.
Keeping shiny object syndrome at bay gets much easier when the higher-ups have already embraced the product vision and tied everyone’s objectives and performance to reaching those relevant goals. Instead of pet projects sneaking into the development queue, they’re forced to undergo the same thorough vetting against the product vision as any other new idea.
Policing this rigid adherence to the product vision may not always make you the most popular, but a fanatical focus on the goals supporting that mission will earn you the trust and respect of everyone involved. It also greatly increases the chances of top marks during any retroactive examination of progress toward the product vision.
Align Behind Your Product Vision
Carrots are preferable to sticks. That should happen more often if everyone understands the context and rationale for product strategies and roadmaps. A shared product vision should inspire and guide versus scold and punish.
But this is only truly possible when the organization ties compensation and reviews to goals aligned with the product vision. Without that common bond and reward structure, staff will inevitably depart from the script to goose their own stats to improve their paychecks and standing within the company.
Product leaders should facilitate this transition by infusing everything they do with the product vision. Everything must be in service of the vision, from how they manage their own teams to the metrics they present to stakeholders to the product roadmaps they share with the organization.