How to spot misalignment and get your team back on track.

Asking the important questions

What am I doing, and why?’ It’s quite the existential question, and while I’m not going to get close to delving into the broad range of its applicability, I’m curious about it within the context of a product delivery team. The different responses I hear to this question provide valuable insight into how well the business direction and product direction are aligned and communicated and teams are working on something purposeful.

Why this is important

My focus and the focus of Cogent is to help create thriving digital businesses. One of the ways we do this is through working with business executives and product delivery teams to gain alignment between the two, and to make sure the method of product delivery has the best chance of helping the business achieve its purpose and vision.

When I arrive at a new client, early on I’m looking to get an understanding of how the team responds to that question: ‘What am I working on, and why?’. When I see teams that can ask this question, have positive discussions that wrestle with the ensuing uncertainty, can refer to clear direction from their leaders, and ultimately get to a decision point on how to move forward, I have confidence that they are moving in the direction of building great products.

However, when the response to the question, be it verbalised or felt, is one of confusion, frustration, or apathy, then I know where to focus my attention. It’s usually a sign that there is no clear link and poor communication about how the business direction flows into the product direction. When this happens, the two can quickly diverge with teams and executives become frustrated alike.

What are some other indicators that your team has improvements to make in connecting business strategy and product direction? What can you put in place to improve this? And what does a healthy state look like anyway?

Telltale signs

You are ‘Agile’ with no observable, predictable process

As there are many manifestations of an Agile framework and countless words written about them, my primary concern is not with teams using one process over another. Rather, it’s when there is notionally a process the team says they follow, but there is no discipline in following it.

The beauty of a disciplined Agile process is that it has self-improvement and refinement built into it: short feedback loops are central to all Agile methods. This is the critical element, and if you find yourself in a team or business that’s not following any process, then there is no way it will improve itself over time. This means that decisions made about what to work on next are less likely to be reflected upon, learned from and improved over time.

Boring showcases

Presuming there is an Agile process in place, and part of that process is regularly showing the broader team the latest software updates, a time to get concerned is when people are regularly bored or frustrated by what they see.

Of course, this could be due to poor presentation skills. However, my experience has been that this is likely due to a lack of connection between what is being delivered, and how this connects to the goals of the business.

Over-analysis

When the business direction is clear and well communicated, product teams can use rules of thumb to determine if features and ideas are aligned with the direction they want to head. When there are hundreds of potential ideas buried inside a tool and all of them are possibilities to work on, it’s highly likely that the team needs some clearer guidance.

Slow recall of the business’ vision

One of the early questions I ask product teams is their recollection and understanding of the business’ vision. If you ask your team this question, and they struggle to answer it, it’s a pretty good indicator that they will be working on things that are not that well aligned with where the business wants to go.

Not moving the right needle

I find that when I ask leaders of businesses what their goals are, and what metrics they want to improve, they can usually give clear answers. This can often be harder for product teams to articulate. The result can be that metrics are moving, but not the ones that the business leaders want to change. Or effort is being put into creating features that are not linked to business metrics at all.

Ways to improve things

The suggestions above will give you an indication of whether the connection between business direction and product delivery is something for your business to focus on. If you find this is the case, then there are some relatively simple things you can to improve this connection.

Implement an Agile process

Pick an Agile process and run with it in a disciplined way. Make a person, usually the product manager, responsible for ensuring this happens. As long as there is regular reflection built into the process and the team is disciplined at sticking to it, incremental improvement will occur over time.

Make progress visible

I like to see the vision/mission/values visible and radiating from the walls of the office. This can also include the key metrics and direction the business is taking over the next 12 months.

I also like to see each delivery team have a visible representation of their focus, and how they are progressing towards this. For example, this could be in the form of a white-board with the team’s vision, projects, and tasks capture on it.

In doing this they become front of mind to the delivery team and the whole business. Making progress and direction visible can be excellent for motivation, although for a more nuanced reflection on this please refer to Dr Jason Fox.

Team vision

To make their progress visible, teams need to have a sense of the direction they are heading. Running a visioning process (the subject of an upcoming post) will help each team to gain ownership over their direction and alignment with the business direction through a process of wrestling with some difficult questions.

With a vision set teams can start to plan what they are working on and refer directly to their vision when they are doing so.

Make use of structured thinking tools

If you have all of the above in place, then an additional step is to start employing structured thinking frameworks to help you have productive discussions and work on the most useful things.

There are many frameworks, but one I’m enjoying using at the moment is the Opportunity Solution Tree (the subject of another upcoming post).

What success starts to look like

If you have concluded that there is a disconnect between the business direction and product delivery, starting to improve things through implementing one or more of the above will help move your team in the right direction. Progress may be slow at first, but over the course of a couple of months, you should start to see your teams operating with a new level of alignment.

Some signs you are on the right track include teams that have robust discussions that refer back to the vision of the team and the business; showcases that teams are proud of; a vision that changes incrementally as the team learns more about their customers; and of course, individuals that can succinctly explain what they are working on and why.