Building Alignment in organisations
I recently pitched our 2017 plans to executives. I was told that the ideas are sound but what is our overall organizational point of view of these ideas? If one product team leads with an idea, will other teams follow along later. Are they bought in?
This remark seems well thought out but it seems way above by pay grade to drive alignment across the entire company on what I think is right for my product. I’m not the only PM who has felt this way. I think every PM, who is trying to do something big runs into this in a large organization.
So what do you do?
When I heard that comment, all I could think of was how many more meetings just got added to my calendar and how I will have to help others to see my POV and buy into it. My mind immediately went to the power centers in the company and who will be the most important influencers to speak with. And, who do they listen to. How can I get into the ear of those guys and gals.
I was thinking about all the folks who are not ready to change their mind. I thought why do I have to do this at all, its not my company. Why do I care so much about this initiative, fuck it. Let me move on to other things I can do for my customers that don’t require organizational alignment. Sell the easier stories while the company makes up its mind on issues of broader importance.
I thought of other PMs who have it easy. Who can push through their initiatives because they are closer to the throne or have more organization support. I thought of all the roles in the organization where I need to plant my ideas and build an army of allies that come to my aid like Foster Tully at the battle of the bastards.
Who will be my Gandalf the white when I need him?
Perhaps I was thinking too much.
Thinking was not going to help. Action will. Or so I thought.
Three weeks and many a meeting later and no closer to organizational alignment I am writing this post to show what you must do and wrestle with to pursue big ideas. Hope this helps others. It certainly helps me get it out there and solicit advice.
Good product managers get into high stakes meeting after getting organizational alignment. That is the craft of product management. I still need to master this.
Very few things irritate me more than confident product managers. PMs that can fake confidence even though uncertainty abounds get on my nerves. I guess it’s because I’m not one of those Product Managers.
Folks like Jason Fried, DHH seem to never talk about their anxieties on Medium. Neither does anyone else frankly. Just like Facebook shows you everyone’s brighter side of life, Medium posts by PMs and founders show off their confidence in predicting the future. Very few PMs or designers talk about the forks in the road and the many paths they could have taken and how they all looked reasonable and defendable.
They don’t talk about organization realities that did not allow them to pursue their vision. They do not talk about the lack of resources or the lack of talent in the organization. They do not talk about building alignment in an organization. And, how hard and often unrewarding that is. They don’t talk about uncomfortable conversations. They don’t mention crucial decisions taken because someone with more cache in an organization wins over data. Or someone with better copywriting and presentation skills wins over rationality and how that is ok.. because its perceived as passion.
They don’t talk about long plane rides full of anxiety and the prep work before these crucial conversations. They don’t talk about the constant pitch deck rewrites and narrative changes. They don’t talk about the challenges of being remote or away from the HQ and trying to push for ownership on larger initiatives. They don’t talk about the VPs and Sr. VPs that have never met customers but have a POV on the UX of your product. They don’t talk about how hard it is to stay positive and optimistic amongst all of this. They don’t talk about how difficult it is to not order that one more cocktail on an expense account on many a dark evening. And, how hard it is to pick yourself back up again.
Coz’ that would be a downer wont it. Why be a downer?
Sorry if this seems like a bit of rant but It needs to be said. Product managers, especially in large companies need to know that their job is hard and why it is hard.
I am much more comfortable being vulnerable. But, I often wonder if this sits well with executives or if it just makes me look weak. Many books and articles talk about faking till you make it. I don’t think that works for me. Wouldn’t you be better off stating risks and assumptions and being vulnerable? I guess not. Your engineering team, your designers, peers and stakeholders are looking up to you for leadership, confidence and guidance. Which is why to me, confidence in a PM is just like an oil spill on an ocean of anxiety. Or the 1/10th of the iceberg floating in an ocean of uncertainty.
Why don’t we acknowledge this reality? That this is the craft of product management.
If you are working on something important in a large company, chances are a lot more people at going to be involved in this project than you imagined and you have to find a way to engage and align them. I thought I knew this but I did not realise how crazy things can get. I think I almost got depressed working on this new, important project as I figured out how many conversations I needed to have and how many presentations I needed to make to get alignment. Here is a quick summary of how I felt during the last one month working on the project.
Thursday July 4th: Down and Out
It’s so easy to get yourself down. I am having a hard week because it’s been difficult to figure out product strategy questions while figuring out the politics around it. Stakeholders are asking good questions but I’m just seeing them as roadblocks. I’m also spending every waking moment thinking about clever retorts and smart one liners to put them in their place. Obviously this is not healthy. And, for the first time in my life, I had trouble sleeping two nights in a row.
So.. I brought out the big guns. I relied on the advice from Tony Robbins, Tim Ferriss and my dad and decided to:
- Listen to music
- Change my body language to feel how I want to feel
Journal (gratitude, morning journal) : Could not get myself to do this.
- Exercise to get the good chemicals flooding in (swam or cross fit every day)
- Decided to treat it as my problem to convince the roadblocks and make them allies.
- Met an old friend from high school. Had a good chat, good Zin, unhealthy food 🙂
- I also decided to blog about my predicament. This was very helpful.
I have three paths forward now: Engage my team to answer the objections Ask the roadblocks how they would pitch the idea Let my management chain know that I will need help It’s amazing once you do stuff… Depression disappears and opportunities appear. You think about things you normally won’t. You smile. You change your mindset. The nature of the problem changes. Your head reconfigures. Hope this helps you get out of your head and “save your soul” https://youtu.be/0wBDDAZkNtk https://youtu.be/0wBDDAZkNtk
July 18th: Working through it. In Action.
Was a really difficult week but rewarding at the end as I was able to resolve conflicts, raise issues as and get stuff sorted out within the company so that we can get good results in the long term. I did not win every argument. I did not get exactly what I wanted. But it really allowed me to hear other people’s points of view. And, a promising future.
Update August 16th: A fantastic week
Things have gone well since I decided to stay in action and bring all stakeholders along. It prevented internal sabotage. I did have to have difficult conversations in person with some stakeholders but it was all important and necessary. Had I seen these folks as roadblocks and tried to steamroll my way through, it would not have worked.
Onwards and upwards.