Discover more from Ani’s Newsletter
The Best Product Managers Pay Their Taxes
Great products are built through alignment. The best PMs invest a lot of time and energy to create shared understanding about their…
All opinions expressed in this article are my own.
No, not to the IRS or the CRA, they pay their alignment tax.
Product management is a multi faceted role —it includes (but is not limited to) writing, storytelling, debugging, planning and strategizing. However, the hardest part of the job in my opinion? Stakeholder management and fostering continuous alignment in the organization. There is an “alignment tax” associated with shepherding your stakeholders.
Great products are built through conversations
Great products are built through alignment. The best PMs invest a lot of time and energy to sell the product’s vision and roadmap to stakeholders to create shared understanding. Shared understanding happens through conversations. Conversations with users, customers, internal and external stakeholders. The adoption of the Agile methodology ushered in an era of PMs who had to learn how to facilitate stakeholder alignment in smaller, faster cycles. This meant that PMs got really good at bringing a feature from inception to launch in short bursts of productive sprints. But what about the bigger picture?
Even the best teams struggle to create alignment
As we zoom out to take a macroscopic look at these high-performing Agile teams, a different story emerges. Often, stakeholders that interface directly with customers, like customer success and sales, feel like their voice is not being heard and that the software being shipped does not reflect the problems they hear in their daily conversations with users and customers. The product development process often feels like a black-box to them. But why? It’s not like PMs are not talking to their customer success or sales teams or even worse, flat out ignoring them. It’s because these stakeholder groups are not aligned internally with the product team. They might each have a different perspective of prioritization, timelines or the actual problems. If everyone has a different understanding of something, expectations will be missed and disappointment or frustration is guaranteed. Creating alignment and shared understanding is extremely hard and the issue has been exacerbated by the shift to remote work in 2020.
Pay your Alignment Tax
Most organizations today create alignment through Waterfall-like tools, artifacts and processes — quarterly planning, roadmaps, backlogs, marketing plans, support ticket escalations etc. These are traditionally push-based mechanisms that require a lot of shepherding and facilitation from the product managers to first gain context and then invest the time to create alignment with the appropriate stakeholders. This can be a slow, frustrating and time-consuming process, especially in large companies. The reality of the product manager role is that a majority of our time is spent story-telling. Selling our vision, strategy and roadmaps to stakeholders to gain buy-in and create alignment. This is the unspoken “alignment tax” of being a great product manager.
I see the PM role being glorified all the time in Linkedin shitposts and other articles, but the reality is that it’s a difficult and unglamorous job. It’s like herding cats — just when you think all the cats are in the pen, one jumps the fence and you are back to chasing it. Fundamentally, PMs who do not pay their alignment tax to create a shared understanding with their stakeholders will fail in their role.
So what do we do?
As part of the shift from project centric delivery to product centric delivery, we need to move from a push-based system of information sharing to a pull-based one. This means being proactive about gathering problems, ideas and feedback from sales, engineering, customer success and marketing. A simple way to do this is to create a channel for stakeholders to share information with the product team. This could be in the form of a central “ideas” JIRA board, or an email distribution list (firstname.lastname@example.org) that the product team monitors and maintains.
My role as a consulting PM has offered me the privilege to work in companies and teams of various sizes and maturity. In my experience, the best product organizations view problems in the market as opportunities to invent and differentiate themselves. They setup the internal tools and channels to source these problems. By creating a proactive channel to source information, problems and market data, the original context is captured because the authors are the primary sources of this information. When product managers translate or synthesize this information after meetings with primary sources, there is a high chance that some context is missed, leading to gaps in alignment.
Once this “primary information funnel” is up and running, the product team will have a constant stream of information and data that will routinely challenge their roadmap and prioritization. This reduces the information asymmetry between the product team and its stakeholders and goes a long way towards building alignment.