When I first started my career after college, I imagined product strategy decisions were methodically planned, backed by data, and meticulously aligned across organizational boundaries. While I'm sure some organizations operate this way, the reality in many large companies is strikingly different. In my experience, product vision rarely comes from a centralized source or group thinking holistically about customer experience. In the absence of this function, product releases reflect the output of structures resembling semi-autonomous fiefdoms reporting up through internal business units that rarely align with customers' perceptions of the company's product offerings. These fiefdoms compete for budget and resources, possess distinct incentive structures, and frequently generate product roadmaps that overlap or conflict with others.
High-level leaders who have visibility across these initiatives are typically too detached from day-to-day operations to predict or identify potential problems.
The iceberg effect
When product efforts are reduced to a few powerpoint slides or excel spreadsheets, we only see the proverbial tip of the iceberg. Dependencies and conflicts among product initiatives unexpectedly emerge as red stoplights in program dashboards from PMO teams. In theory, the Program Management function should be capable of detecting and forecasting these conflicts. However, in practice, they are seldom empowered or staffed to go beyond program and resource scheduling.
The consequences of this misalignment are often felt by end-users who have no concept of internal business units or reporting lines. They can experience these obstacles when using software or tools developed by different teams to accomplish a task or solve a routine problem. Although end-users are not (and should not need to be) aware of technology or design decisions made by different teams they are commonly asked to workaround them. For example, obstacles may come in the form of design or informational inconsistency (e.g., different button styles, element labels, navigational hierarchy) or data silos (e.g., requiring multiple account logins, incomplete data) or overlapping functionality.
Managing product experience blind spots
Depending on the organizational structure, managing and anticipating product experience blind spots can be a challenging never-ending task. Due to different reporting structures and incentives, identifying the pain points can prove difficult, let alone "fixing" them. When team success is tied to feature releases and output alone, a disjointed experience (even when it's recognized) is regularly deprioritized or swept under the rug in favor of new feature development. Over time, tech and ux debt accumulate eventually slowing development.
Savvy product and design leaders, even when embedded in cross-matrixed orgs, can raise awareness and advocate for cohesive end-user experiences. Starting with issue identification quantifying their impact can be a good tactic to grab attention. Customer quotes, survey results, or usability test clips can also help connect dots in meaningful ways when they are presented to leadership or decision makers who, in many cases are sympathetic to ux-related issues, but often don't have a consistent view or access to a feedback loop informing planning and priotitization.
While this approach may help identify existing issues in the field, the goal is to prevent them from happening through more holistic planning and mitigation earlier in the product life cycle. This can be at odds with normal processes which can stress feature lists and sprint velocity, especially if the design function is seen as part of a feature factory rather than a strategic activity. More sustainable impacts can be had through changes to processes and incentive structures, although these are really difficult to change in large orgs, so it's likely that changes will need to start small and can expand where flexibility exists. A few ideas that might work in these cases:
- Showcase the blind spots through listening labs, journey maps, or usability testing that expose those pain points to internal stakeholders
- Map out customer journeys or service blueprints to across product or team or functional boudaries to highlight opportunities for improvement
- Build a cross-team backlog that addresses gaps in experience
- Dedicate time in sprint or release planning for debt reduction activities
- If your organization has a process improvement methodology or program, see if piloting new processes could work; especially if you are able to quantify to revenue or cost savings
- Seek out executive sponsors who have the authority to affect organizational change
Addressing product strategy challenges in large organizations requires increased communication and collaboration among teams, as well as empowering key roles to bridge gaps and anticipate conflicts. By focusing on these aspects, companies can work towards creating a more cohesive and seamless user experience, ultimately fostering customer satisfaction and loyalty.