Alignment in the Wild West

How do we get alignment in the Wild West?


When I'm evaluating market opportunities, one of the questions I first ask is what stage of evolution/maturity is the market in? Before I became aware of Simon Wardley and Wardley Mapping, I used the term “Wild West” to describe markets where multiple (radically) different solutions to the same problem existed in the market.

When different approaches to solving the same problem are all thriving, it means the market hasn't picked a winner yet. Either the different niches being served by the different solutions are not well understood or separated into segments yet, or the customers have not standardized on a framing of the opportunities and what success looks like.

Wardley has given shape to the evolution of markets (from their Genesis through Commodity status), and even created labels for the companies who play in markets in different stages (pioneers, settlers, and town planners).

After almost 25 years of consulting and product management, I definitely believe we are in the wild west of helping organizations understand and align on product management. I regularly see organizations without product management and organizations who are not bringing product practices to bear effectively within their teams and structures.

Worst of all may be organizations that create product victims instead of product professionals. These organizations anoint people with a product title, provide them with no training in product management, and place them on teams who have no idea what to expect of their product-peers. It is unfair to the people and ill-advised for the organization.

What we have is a lack of alignment in our wild west.

What Changed When We Weren't Looking?!

We live in interesting times as the apocryphal Chinese curse might describe things. Today, this phrase can be interpreted as a blessing. The pace of change of, well, everything, has changed.

To the point where I believe it is a change in kind and not simply a change of degree. Every company I've worked with operates in a complex (or chaotic) environment where some companies perhaps competed in complicated or simple environments before.

  • Customer needs and expectations are rapidly evolving, as influences cross market-definition boundaries.
  • Competitive threats are rapidly adapting, as competitors enter markets and introduce changes to existing solutions.
  • Organizational capabilities are rapidly mutating, as the underlying technologies, our internal priorities, and our employees and partners grow and shift.

In a complex environment, we need to bring to bear different practices, to inform decisions in different ways at a different pace. Speed becomes a competitive advantage, as does embodied learning; while execution excellence continues to be important, it is no longer the only factor.

Emerging Patterns

There are a few patterns that seem to be coalescing as best practices across multiple organizations. These patterns are relevant to reaching alignment around a definition of “good product management” – because the context in which product is judged to be ‘good' matters.

  • Cross-Functional Teams
  • Outside-In Drivers
  • OutcomeOrientation

Cross-Functional Teams

Simply put, each of us views an opportunity from a unique perspective. Those perspectives are shaped by our experiences. How we got here defines where “here” is as much as who we are. We discern from our “here.” When everyone contributes to the same decision and is standing in the same place, they will all see the same things.

We benefit from bringing multiple perspectives to bear when informing our decisions. Decisions on where to compete, who should be our customers, what we should help them with, how to help them, all the way to when we will build which thing.

For product management to be “good” – it needs to be suited to the purpose of contributing as part of a cross-functional team.

Outcome Orientation

Outcome orientation gets a lot of air-time these days, but in many places, it's no more than lip-service (or lip sync). Execution of the previously defined plan is not outcome-orientation. Counting features or stories or lines of code delivered per fortnight is not outcome-orientation.

There are two ways to think about outcomes – benefits to the customer (see”outside-in” above), and benefits to the organization. That's it. Every incremental investment we make, everything we build, or line of code we type – all of it either contributes to or does not contribute to an outcome.

For product management to be “good” – it needs to help teams achieve a shared understanding of the outcomes we are pursuing, the relationships between our plans and our desired outcomes, and how to measure if we have achieved those outcomes.

Learning Structures

An underlying element of agile processes which makes it possible for the approach to be more effective in a complex environment is that they are incremental. We avoid all the mistakes of waiting until it is too late to discover part of our approach was wrong all along. Unfortunately, incrementalism is only a different way to manage projects. What we also need is iteration.

Teams even call their incremental build cycles iterations. Sadly, many organizations are incapable of iterating, they can only increment. If you do not change the plan, the design, the scope, the requirements, you are not iterating, you are only incrementing.

For product management to be “good” – it needs to enable teams to learn while doing, to de-risk the plan while executing. Designing experiments to discover and address unknowns, driving the decisions about which unknowns we need to address first.

Good Product Management

A complex environment – and my assertion is that we are all in one now – can be (blessing) “interesting” when we embrace good product management, and (curse) “interesting” when we do not.

Learning allows us to not only place better bets but improve the odds on the fly. The odds are in terms of achieving the outcomes, for our customers and for our organization; not delivering ‘on time, on budget' – which is a secondary concern.

Learning happens outside the building, engaging with our customers, understanding and anticipating our competitors; and it happens inside, as we embrace the Kaizen principle of continuous improvement. We do this together, filling in each other's blind spots by combining our perspectives and insights.

Good product management will be defined in the future within this environment. Organizations can identify the capabilities which embody these aspects of effectiveness. As shared points of view coalesce from the vapor of today's mists, we can achieve alignment as a profession; we can help product professionals chart a course to being effective, just as we help organizations understand how best to improve.

Alignement in the wild west

About the Author​

Scott Sehlhorst
Scott Sehlhorst is an executive consultant with 30 years experience strategic product management, organizational design & transformation and lean portfolio management, and product innovation. He helps companies transform the way they make decisions and deploy strategy to be more competitive and more effective.

Why I Joined APP

I joined the Association of Product Professionals because I've grown my career into one where I'm helping companies "do product" better, and helping individuals be better at the craft of product management. I believe in the vision of APP, to help coalesce and align on a shared understanding of what product should be, within organizations, and to provide guidance to help people grow their own craft. We couldn't be more aligned. I have faith and trust in the people who founded APP, what more could I ask for? Happy to be here and helping!

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