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Creating alignment: The step to building digital products your team’s been missing

Jesse Stevens
Jesse Stevens
Senior Product Strategist
7 min read
16 February 2024

Within a context like building digital products, “alignment” sounds like an amorphous, obvious value. Similar enough to “agreement” or “consensus,” it’s a no-brainer. Of course, you need to create alignment to build a successful digital product. Next topic. 

Here’s the thing, though: Alignment is a no-brainer. Nevertheless, a lot of product development teams aren’t aligned. And, sometimes, the stakeholders on those teams are the ones who are the most surprised they’re not. 

As product people, we need to start treating alignment as Step 0 of the product lifecycle. Why? Because a lack of alignment can cost tens—or even hundreds of thousands—of dollars in wasted time and effort building a product that’s either flawed or just doesn’t work.

The big questions

Let’s start with the big question: Is your team aligned? 

If your team is misaligned, there are a few telling indicators that you may or may not be aware of:

  • A lot of talk but not so much action. Stakeholders on your team probably have a laundry list of ideas and opinions on the table. Even if there’s been an effort to cut that list down, if everyone’s calendar still has upcoming ideation sessions—or if every team meeting feels like it ends in a similar discussion—not everyone is on the same page. 
  • A sense of urgency. Maybe all that talking has created a feedback loop in which conversations are becoming increasingly stressed as inaction builds. Maybe your team has been dealing with roadblock after roadblock, or stuck dealing with the same one. Whatever the case, if everyone’s feeling the effects of a ticking clock, it’s not good.
  • General confusion and concern. This indicator is an obvious one, but if there are no artifacts or documents articulating your plan, code is being pushed without authorization, or your team’s behaving in a way that suggests they’ve resigned themselves to the fact the project’s going to flop, you’re most definitely not aligned.

When you first jump into a project, a way of testing the waters for alignment is to have everyone answer these three questions in plain language. 

  • What is the business objective?
  • What is the opportunity for the user/customer?
  • What is the solution hypothesis?

From experience, we know that everyone on an aligned product team can answer each of these pretty quickly in a way that’s the same across the board.

These questions can also help shed some light on a case of misalignment. Conflicting opinions on all or some of these questions—especially the third one—help illustrate where and how a team is misaligned. 

However, if you’re not aligned, it’s also important to recognize that getting everyone on the same page with their answers isn’t enough to create true alignment.

“Agreement” isn’t “alignment”

As you and your team work on building your product, it’s practically a guarantee that one or more of the answers to these questions will change. Business priorities can shift. Audience needs can change at the drop of a hat. And, as with everything in software engineering, sometimes sh*t just happens. 

To adjust and adapt successfully, you and your team need to be able to pivot as a unit. This is why we say your team needs to be in alignment as opposed to agreement.

Adam Grant, an author and organizational psychologist, has a nice quote that illustrates the difference between these two:

“Strong relationships don’t need agreement. They need alignment
Agreement is having identical opinions. Alignment is having shared values. 
Agreement is taking the same path. Alignment is heading in the same direction.”

Because agreement is inherently less flexible than alignment, it’s not enough to just schedule a quick meeting to get everyone on the same page with those three questions. 

After all, most of the folks on your team are coming into the project from different angles. In our experience, product teams can include everyone from Project Managers to Directors of Engineering—even sometimes CEOs—with each one of these roles bringing a different expertise and POV to the table.

Every one of these perspectives has something valuable to offer. While their variety will probably make 1:1 agreement a hard-won task, that’s okay. Because the most important thing is to ensure that everyone’s contribution will feed the same overarching vision. 

That’s alignment.

Alignment that works for you

Spoiler alert: There’s no one-size-fits-all solution for creating alignment.

However, we’ve covered enough ground here to identify a few basic needs that all product teams should have.

  • A shared vision for the product.
  • A shared understanding of your consumers’ needs.
  • A shared list of actionable steps.
  • A set of clearly defined roles and responsibilities.

We can bundle these essentials into one umbrella term: a shared knowledge base. This ensures that—across your team and for the duration of the project—everyone has the same overarching goal and understands what needs to be delivered to accomplish it. 

Sounds easy enough, right? 

If you’re at the very beginning of a project, compiling a shared knowledge base is easy… because you’re treating alignment as your Step 0.

If you’re already in the midst of product development, however, it’s a different story. Odds are the idea of backtracking to Step 0 from Step 3 or 4 will not be very well received, especially if your team’s already been frustrated by some of the indicators of misalignment we described earlier.

Instances like this are where we’ve found a product sprint can help. While sprints are not perfect by any means, they’re a great ice-breaker for teams that are stuck somewhere in the middle of product development. 

Sprints provide structure and the opportunity to validate ideas by building a viable prototype of your product in a low-stakes environment. 

Put another way, sprints give your team a shot at earning a much-needed win—and getting some pretty valuable insight that reinvigorates them for the real deal.

Do or do not. There is no try.

The consequences of a lack of alignment can be dire, resulting in wasted time, effort, and resources. However, simply aiming for agreement isn’t enough. True alignment goes beyond shared opinions; it’s about fostering a collective understanding of the overarching vision and values driving your project forward.

By prioritizing alignment from the start, as your Step 0, and continuously nurturing it throughout the product lifecycle, you’ll not only mitigate the risks associated with misalignment but also empower your team to pivot and adapt in the face of changing priorities and circumstances. 

In doing so, you’ll lay the foundation for building digital products that resonate with users, drive business objectives, and ultimately, achieve success in the ever-evolving digital landscape.

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