Driving Alignment Around Goals

Product Management
Isabelle Berner
Director of Product

I was recently a speaker on a Product Stack webinar on collaboration with my former colleague, Jay Badenhope. The organizer, Ronan Dunlop, sent around some questions to registrants ahead of time, one of which was “What is your biggest challenge vis-a-vis team collaboration?”. I was surprised to learn that 39% of respondents, nearly all of them product professionals, selected “misalignment around goals and expectations” as their main challenge. Upon reflection, I also noticed a pattern in my own history as a product manager--the times where I have been “in house” (aka an employee of the company) this has been a more prevalent issue than the times where I’ve worked with a company as a consultant. 


Why is misalignment around goals and expectations such a common problem? How come product management consultants are more effective at addressing this issue, than in-house product managers (even when they are the same person!)? Below, I’ll share some thoughts on why I think consultants are able to do this better than in-house product managers, and I’ll share a technique that I’ve used on many client projects to ensure alignment around goals and expectations. 


One of the first things we talk about when we join a client team on an engagement is goals. What does success look like at the end of this engagement? What things have to be true for us to consider this project a success? What are some future goals that are out of scope for this engagement? Our success as consultants hinges on our ability to bring clarity to these questions. If we don’t have alignment on this, then there is 0% chance that everyone involved in the project considers it to be a success. So we push and we dig and we ask dozens of clarifying questions to get to a shared understanding of this. 


Consultants have two advantages here: First, we are new to the party and have a different type of skin in the game. This means that we can ask the hard questions and don’t have to adhere to the power dynamics and politics of the organization. Second, we can not afford to get this wrong. 

Leading a Goals & Anti-Goals Exercise

A tool that I use to achieve this alignment is a goals and anti-goals exercise that I picked up during my time at Pivotal Labs. To get the most out of this exercise, you have to bring all the stakeholders and core team members into one room (physical or virtual) and give each person an opportunity to speak about what success means to them. Equally important is to discuss anti-goals, things that are important to accomplish eventually, but not in scope for our immediate set of goals. 

Heres and example of the agenda for this session:

  1. Set up the exercise by giving the meeting an objective and discussing the categories with some examples of well framed goals and anti-goals. (5 min) 
  1. Note: You might also want to do some housekeeping here, reminding people that this is a safe space, that their participation and engagement is needed for a successful workshop, and that we will put a pin in rabbit hole conversations using a “parking lot” technique. 
  1. Silently generate goals and anti-goals on stickies (one per sticky) (5 min)
  1. If you notice that, across your group, there are more than 30 stickies, prompt each person to pick the 5 stickies in their batch that are most important to discuss since you probably won’t get to all of them. 
  1. Using a round-robin facilitation technique, have each person read 1 sticky in turn and stick it onto the whiteboard. Invite folks with similar stickies to put their next to this one and write a summary of the goal theme above the grouping. Go around the group as many times as you can in 35 minutes. 
  1. Sometimes, goals will creep in that are actually anti-goals. Be sure to clarify “are we trying to accomplish this by the end of the project, or is this a future goal that we have?”
  2. Give room for discussion, but also be mindful of keeping talking time even across participants and moving the conversation along when needed. 
  1. Prioritize the groups of goals together. You can do this by stack ranking them based on an agreed upon definition of importance. Or you can have the group dot vote on the 3 goals that are most important. (5-15 min)
  2. Recap and review next steps (5 min)


Here’s an example of what a whiteboard might look like at the end of this 60 minute session:


I’ve actually used this exercise when I was “in house” at Pattern Brands on several occasions. Early in my tenure there, it was easier to ask difficult questions (why is that really important? What would the business look like if that did not happen?) and dig into stakeholder reasoning. As my tenure there progressed, I found myself making more assumptions about what people meant and their underlying intentions. I actually became worse at driving these types of conversations as my time in the organization progressed. 

Tips if you are an “in-house” product manager

If you are trying to apply this technique in the organization you work for, there are a few things you can think about to avoid that trap. First, just be aware of it and ask the questions, even if you think you know the answer. You might be surprised. Second, try to find someone outside of your team to facilitate these conversations so that you can check your bias at the door and participate. This could be a consultant or just someone from another team who is outside the political sphere of your project. Def Method Product consultants can help you facilitate these conversations for free via our Product Consults

Avoid stale goals

My last piece of advice on this is, do not let your goals get stale. For goals to properly serve the purpose of driving alignment and scaffolding collaboration for a team, everyone has to stay connected to them and motivated by them. You should be talking about your goals every week, or every other week and having a conversation with your team about which goals are off track, or at risk, and what can be done to get things back on track. It is ok for some goals to shift, as long as this shift is a function of something that you have learned, and as long as the same group that created those initial goals is bought into the shift. 



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