Harvard Business Review

This is from 2015 | 6 minute read

Dysfunctional Products Come from Dysfunctional Organizations

Producing great products isn’t just about creativity and execution. It’s also about organizational alignment. Let me tell you a quick story. One of my alumni, Eli, recently finished a contract with a government transportation agency. She had been tasked with spending time with the agency’s customers – regular citizens – to identify usability issues in their mobile app. She had quickly discovered that the app was basically a trainwreck. People couldn’t understand how to use it, frequently lost money during the ticket purchasing process, and often got frustrated attempting to pay bus fare with an electronic ticket.

Eli presented her work to executives and product owners in a two hour meeting. As the meeting progressed, the lead product owner got more and more agitated, and eventually exclaimed, “I can’t control any of these issues!” and stormed out. It became clear that the people who hired her were using her consulting as a weapon in the organization to compensate for interpersonal and cultural issues – to highlight misalignment.

As we were chatting about this experience, she offered a tremendously insightful view of what happened. “The problems in their software are directly indicative of the problems in their organization.” The company had layers of bureaucracy and management, siloed functions, and a culture of friction and defensiveness. Their product had layers of disconnected functionality, siloed capabilities, and generated obtuse experiences for users. The dysfunction in the organization became the dysfunction in the product, and that was passed on to the customers.

This is interesting as an intellectual curiosity – we can compare successful products to unsuccessful products and make inferences about the organizations that produced them, and how the “sausage is made.” But it has much more practical implications in the other direction. We can look at the way our own companies operate and make inferences about how our products are perceived. If the process, culture, and day-to-day experience of the organization is chaotic or broken, we can start to predict that our customers are experiencing an equally broken product or service. Since Eli shared this insight, I’ve observed its validity in many products and companies. Of course, there are exceptions, but on the whole it seems true that bad products point to bad alignment.

How can this misalignment be avoided or corrected? First, let’s clarify that we’re talking about a certain kind of alignment – i.e. congruence around a clear vision or goal for a product. This type of alignment is typically attempted in a meeting, where people discuss strategic direction and how the product fits into this. Ideally, everyone involved forms a basic shared understanding of how the world is and how the product is meant to improve it. But more frequently, because words carry ambiguity, meeting attendees leave without a clear understanding of just what they’ve actually agreed to. And even if alignment is achieved during the meeting, it begins to erode the minute the meeting is over. As time goes by, the shared vision splinters. I’ll ask myself “Did we mean this, or that?” – and since I’m moving quickly, I’ll answer it on my own. Then I’ll act on my answer. Other meeting participants will do the same. And as I make decisions independent of others, we become disjoint. Call this “alignment-attrition” – as the time window between our interactions increases, our alignment decreases.

This dynamic operates differently in different kinds of organizations. In an early-stage startup, for example, everyone sits next to each other. It’s hard to shake alignment in this context, because the window for alignment-attrition is so small. If you sit next to me and we have a conversation and “align” on a direction, there’s only a time window of about 15 minutes that can pass before we have another conversation and course-correct if things have gone sideways. But in a larger company, weeks or even months can go by, and the potential for alignment-attrition is enormous.

In these more distributed contexts, a visual model becomes one of the most effective tools for minimizing alignment-attrition. A visual model captures and freezes a thought in time. By building a visual model together, alignment is offloaded to and “frozen in” the diagram. Your thoughts, opinions, and views will change, but the diagram won’t, and so you’ve added a constraining boundary to the idea – and a tool for concretely visualizing how the product vision is changing. Herein is the magic of leveraging visual thinking in a large, distributed organization. A visualization of a product strategy (or almost any strategy) is easily consumable, while a requirement document is not. A visualization can be viewed by many at once, while it’s difficult to collaborate on generating a spreadsheet or specification. And most importantly, a visualization formalizes an emergent idea and solidifies it at a moment in time.

Here are some concrete process steps for reducing alignment attrition with visual thinking:

  • Facilitate an interactive workshop between constituents early in the process.
  • Rather than having a traditional meeting with a powerpoint and a lot of talking, structure the meeting with creative activities – storyboarding, sketching, or other forms of making.
  • After the workshop is over, capture the visual output, and revise it to be crisp and concise.
  • Circulate the visual broadly amongst the stakeholders, and ask for feedback on it; integrate changes, and as you work through the project, continue to revise the visualization and publish it periodically.

Besides enhancing and maintaining alignment, these steps help mitigate other important problems associated with conventional product management. Traditionally, a product manager might view her job as one of dictating requirements for features and functions in a product. In this model, alignment becomes less important than conformity. Top-down authority mandates what everyone works on, and a requirement document attempts to act as the rulebook. This almost always results in the people “lower down the chain” feeling disenfranchised. Not only are they not aligned, but worse, they feel no pride of ownership in the actual strategic direction that’s been set. If the foot soldiers carrying out all the tactical jobs of product creation have no visibility into the larger direction of the organization, and are unable to answer the question, “Why am I doing this?,” not only does this jeopardize the product, but it misses out on a huge opportunity for leveraging and increasing the positive engagement and productivity of the organization.

As companies grow and struggle with increasingly complicated and ambiguous product challenges, visual thinking, and product processes built around concrete visuals, help to clarify the challenge for everyone involved – and to increase the likelihood of creating a successful product.


Kolko, Jon (2015), "Dysfunctional Products Come from Dysfunctional Organizations". Harvard Business Review, 1/21/2015.
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