PRODUCTHEAD: Ingredients for alignment

PRODUCTHEAD: Ingredients for alignment

PRODUCTHEAD is a regular newsletter of product management goodness,
curated by Jock Busuttil.

product flower #

every PRODUCTHEAD edition is online for you to refer back to


For better alignment, leaders should only communicate the why and what of the goal to their teams

Auftragsklärung facilitates alignment through both top-down and bottom-up goal setting

Try to communicate your work’s value to stakeholders in terms they will understand

Alignment is a system in dynamic equilibrium


After enlightening conversations with several lovely people this week for what I’m beginning to think of as Schrödinger’s book, I’ve been thinking about what ingredients we need for alignment, so I wrote this piece to try and unpack it a bit.

It’s about not just using the same words as each other, but understanding the same concepts from those words and, possibly more importantly, having the same intent.

Have a read below and see what you think. Feel free to reply with your own take.

For you this week #

Steven Bungay is an author and strategic consultant with a diverse academic background in philosophy and military history. He brings all this to bear on modern technology companies such as the Mercedes Formula One team. You may not have heard of his 2010 book, The Art of Action, but you’ll recognise many concepts that are in broad usage today. In the interview I’ve included this week he advocates for team autonomy when there is high alignment and explains why things go off the rails when there is not.

Steven talks about three gaps, of which one is the alignment gap. He describes methods such as ‘back briefing’ to resolve this gap, which ensures that both parties understand the goal and the strategic intent at each level of the organisation’s hierarchy (much like my scenario with Toni and Lester in the article below).

Arne Kittler takes this process of bridging the alignment gap and breaks it down into more specific questions for a team to answer together in a workshop format. He calls it Auftragsklärung (“work assignment clarification”).

Imogen Schels provides a summary of an interview with product leaders Priscilla Nu and Tamara Moona for Mind The Product. They talk through the challenges of seeking alignment in companies where product management is still a new concept.

Lastly, a short article from John Cutler on how alignment doesn’t mean total consensus or conformity.

Speak to you soon,


Ingredients for alignment #

We talk about seeking out alignment, with our team, senior managers, stakeholders. But what do we really mean by ‘alignment’ and why is it so hard to achieve?

Agreeing on the same goal #

Let’s see if we even agree on how to define ‘alignment’. (Yep, we’ve gone meta by sentence 3. Strap in.)

I think of alignment between two people — let’s call them Toni and Lester — as being when:

Toni and Lester agree on the same goal;

they both understand the meaning of the goal in the same way;

they both agree why the goal is worthwhile to achieve, right now.

The way I see it, Toni and Lester need to agree on a heck of a lot.

Understanding the same meaning #

Let’s go a bit deeper. For Toni and Lester to agree on a concept, they both need to understand it in the same way. Otherwise they’re not agreeing on the same thing.

I imagine it as though the concept is a picture inside Toni’s head. When Lester also sees broadly the same picture in their head AND is interpreting it in the same way as Toni, then they’re aligned. (In as far as they understand the same concept. Nobody’s said anything about whether they agree whether it’s a good idea.)

Using words alone to describe the concept can introduce ambiguity. Words imperfectly represent ideas.

We see this confusion whenever people are using the same words, but those words represent different ideas to different people, perhaps as a result of each person’s respective experiences, prior knowledge or differing mental models.

Take ‘Agile’ as an example. What does it mean — or trigger — for you? I’ve watched its meaning evolve from

‘having no particular meaning’


‘responding to change over following a plan’

‘a challenge to the status quo’

‘a panacea for product delivery problems’

‘a word hijacked by overpaid consultants to lend credibility to their overwrought and antithetical software delivery process’.

(I’m not turning this into a rant about Agile. It’s just an example of how the same word can change meaning.)

The challenge then for Toni and Lester is that they need that mental picture to be the same in both their heads, but in the absence of widespread telepathy, they have to resort to an imperfect medium (words) to achieve that shared understanding.

Workarounds #

And so to get around that problem, they try describing it in different ways with different words.

They use numbers — or metrics — to illustrate the difference between the current and desired states. But metrics are another imperfect medium in this context. Metrics measure specific aspects of something, they don’t provide the whole picture.

They draw pictures, maps and graphs to represent the same thing conceptually in still more ways. They seek feedback and confirmation to check everyone is ‘on the same page’.

They do all of this to try to copy the picture from Toni’s to Lester’s head, and for Lester to verify that their copy is the essentially the same as Toni’s. In other words, our ability to reach alignment is governed by how well we can play Charades with our teams, stakeholders and bosses. That’s wildly unhelpful.

My priorities, your priorities #

Even assuming Toni and Lester both now have the same mental picture AND are interpreting it the same way, it may not be equally important to them.

Sometimes, these differing priorities are not necessarily a problem. If Toni just wants to keep Lester informed, it’s fine for Lester to remain a supportive bystander. But if Toni needs Lester to actually pitch in and help, Toni will need to persuade Lester to revise their priorities.

This is where influencing and persuasion techniques come into play. I’ve written about this before in detail, so I won’t repeat it all here.

Wilful misinterpretation #

So far, we’re assuming that Toni and Lester want to end up seeing the same mental picture. What happens when Lester is acting in self-interest?

Toni describes one thing and Lester interprets it slightly differently to better suit their own agenda. But Lester also gives Toni the impression that they’re seeing the same picture to maintain Toni’s cooperation. Toni and Lester end up in this weird state of faux-alignment that will inevitably cause problems later on (mainly for Toni).

Just think of every time you’ve described your product roadmap to an esteemed colleague in sales. Despite you holding a billboard that says “SUBJECT TO CHANGE” in big red letters, they still take it as a binding and immutable release schedule, and immediately promise it to a customer. Why? Because they’re acting in self-interest and it better serves their needs to do so. That’s wilful misinterpretation.

Final thoughts #

For Toni and Lester to achieve alignment they need to agree on the same goal and interpret it the same way, and to have similar priorities if they need to collaborate. This is hard enough. It becomes almost impossible when self-interest comes into play. This is where mutual trust comes in as a pre-requisite for alignment, and that will be a topic for another time.

what to think about this week

How to create team alignment and autonomy

Before joining Ashridge, Stephen [Bungay] was a Vice President and Partner at the Boston Consulting Group, where his clients ranged from Shell Oil to the Elite Mercedes F1 racing team. His interest in strategy led him to publish two books on military history that garnered him expert historian status.

His most recent book — the Art of Execution [sic] — really caught our attention. In it, he shares lessons on how leaders thrive through high disruption environments based on a study of military history. If you’re trying to make sense of all the different frameworks for how to think about strategy and how to tie that to execution, this is a great source.

[VIDEO] How to bridge the alignment gap

[Stephen Bungay / ResultMaps]

Collaborative alignment for product managers

Strong product teams expect a high degree of autonomy in how they build their products. But autonomy is not something you claim — it’s something you can only earn through successful alignment with stakeholders, peers and within your team.

At XING we put product managers in the driver seat for getting alignment about their upcoming initiatives. Learn why this is important and how the Auftragsklärung framework helps to make alignment a collaborative process.

Top-down and bottom-up alignment for the win

[Arne Kittler / Medium]

So long stakeholder problems

Product practice is relatively new in many regions around the world, leading to misunderstandings and a failure to understand the value a product manager can contribute to an organisation. As a result, it can be challenging for those with product management roles to achieve alignment with stakeholders on goals and outcomes.

[ARTICLE] Hold alignment sessions with the right people in the room


[Priscilla Nu & Tamara Moona / Mind The Product]

Shallow vs. deep alignment

“We’re 100% aligned!” Oh really?
“We finished our OKRs! We’re aligned!” Oh really?
“The team agreed on action items!” Oh really?

Alignment is about cultivating a collective sense of purpose and direction, not achieving total consensus or conformity/consistency.

Alignment is not a checkbox

[John Cutler / The Beautiful Mess]

recent posts

Moving up to a CPO or VP Product role

Stepping up to a Chief Product Officer (CPO) or VP Product role doesn’t so much change what you do. Rather it amplifies everything. This guide lets you know what to expect.

Liberating and terrifying in equal measure

[I Manage Products]

I want to update my pricing strategy. Where do I start?

“My product currently has one tier of per-seat pricing for all customers. I want to change my pricing strategy to cater differently for SMEs and enterprise customers. Where do I start?”

A few pricing concepts to consider + further reading

[I Manage Products]

How do I make my product roadmap a better communication tool?

“My product roadmap is not getting the right information across to other people in my company. In particular, my customer success and marketing teams are struggling to plan their work for upcoming product releases. I’m also not sure how I can show my roadmap’s relationship to the half-yearly OKRs we set. How can I improve it?”

Your product roadmap is a communication tool

[I Manage Products]

can we help you?

Product People is a product management services company. We can help you through consultancy, training and coaching. Just contact us if you need our help!

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Helping people build better products, more successfully, since 2012.

PRODUCTHEAD is a newsletter for product people of all varieties, and is lovingly crafted from an outbreak of warm weather. Finally.

Read more from Jock

The Practitioner's Guide to Product Management book cover

The Practitioner's Guide To Product Management

by Jock Busuttil

“This is a great book for Product Managers or those considering a career in Product Management.”

— Lyndsay Denton

Jock Busuttil is a product management and leadership coach, product leader and author. He has spent over two decades working with technology companies to improve their product management practices, from startups to multinationals. In 2012 Jock founded Product People Limited, which provides product management consultancy, coaching and training. Its clients include BBC, University of Cambridge, Ometria, Prolific and the UK’s Ministry of Justice and Government Digital Service (GDS). Jock holds a master’s degree in Classics from the University of Cambridge. He is the author of the popular book The Practitioner’s Guide To Product Management, which was published in January 2015 by Grand Central Publishing in the US and Piatkus in the UK. He writes the blog I Manage Products and weekly product management newsletter PRODUCTHEAD. You can find him on Mastodon, X (formerly Twitter) and LinkedIn.

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