There is no Product vs the Business: you’re in the same boat

Hannah challenges the idea that Product and 'The Business' are conflicting.

A collage on a lilac background shows two hands in an arm wrestle, sitting in a newspaper folded boat.

Product Teams vs Business Teams

In the world of product development, there's a silent partner that often looms large: The Business.

Never seen, sometimes heard, always felt: the force that lurks behind tight deadlines, new feature mountains and lengthy sign off processes. For product teams The Business is often seen as a nebulous entity that obstructs progress and complicates collaboration.

But, there are two sides to every story. “The Business” - a conveniently all encompassing term for our colleagues in Marketing, Operations, Finance, Compliance and other business areas - are often left in the dark about progress, priority and return on investment. They are often frustrated by delayed deadlines, a loss of creative control and confused about why their priority item isn’t being treated with urgency and excitement.

Don’t accept Product vs Business

Whilst this tension is common, it shouldn’t be accepted as necessary.

Imagine a rowing boat full of people who have different skills and strengths at the oars. If just one or two teammates are rowing out of sync, the boat will drag and start slowing down. If those teammates are pulling at different velocities, it won’t be long before they exhaust themselves entirely.

Further still, imagine if over half the boat are rowing at different rhythms and different velocities; the boat risks being set off balance altogether. Whilst it might still be moving, it’ll feel exhausting at best, and at worst it will capsize.

When teams within a single company are out of sync, the ability to move fast and effectively is reduced. At a team-level members risk wasted effort and burn out. At an organisational level, companies lose out due to operational inefficiency and an inability to stay in the race.

After all, we’re all in the same boat so how did we end up at odds with one another? Why are we out of sync at all?

Sources of tension between Product and the Business

Whilst there are many possible reasons for friction between teams, they tend to fall into one of four common anti-patterns:

Different goals

Each team is operating with distinct objectives and priorities, leading to a competition for resources and a push/pull between Business and Product teams on what’s truly important.

Communication and mis(trust)

An absence of a common goal might also result in a lack of common language. This breeds misunderstanding and creates distrust between teams. Preventing them from making mutually beneficial decisions.

Conflicting vision and metrics

Divergent interpretations of data, definitions of success, or differing, splintered data sources result in misalignment, or worse, a cannibalisation of efforts.

Product team X’s target metric this quarter is to boost engagement. Marketing Team Y’s main metric this quarter is new user acquisition. Without a shared goal and approach, Marketing team Y risk funnelling in lots of new users, who the product isn’t designed to engage, setting the Product Team up for an uphill climb.

Unclear ownership

As part of their transformation efforts, larger organisations have tended to cross-promote or hire new talent to establish Product Management functions for effective digital delivery. This can lead to confusion about who ‘owns’ what, with Marketing Managers, Proposition Managers and Product Managers all taking a stake in what and how products should be built.

Establishing a new function without the necessary shift in culture or responsibilities creates legacy issues. Teams end up working by muscle memory rather than changing their practice to reflect the new structure. Notably this is most common in organisations shifting from sales-led to product-led delivery, but we’ll save that for another day.

How do we alleviate this tension

To resolve this tension, alignment is important across goals, communication, data and ownership. There’s no silver bullet, but there are notable examples:

Airbnb famously merged both Business and Product disciplines to foster single ownership and remove the ‘hand off’ between two teams. This approach lends itself better to digitally native businesses.

Netflix, renowned for its data driven approach to product development, ensures the integration between business and product insights. Not only does this create a single, shared source of truth, it enables teams to use this insight to optimise content and user experience as one product, resulting in a gold-standard experience and sustained growth.

Netflix and Airbnb are both digitally native companies but, in many cases they are the exception not the rule. That said, despite being a Consultant, I’ll surprise you here by saying that reducing tension between teams doesn’t always require a total restructure.

Team-level shifts
Organisational shifts
One-team, one dream

Fostering collaboration between Product Management and Business teams requires a shift from role-driven thinking to outcome-driven approaches. By implementing change organisations can bridge the gap, align on goals and roles and propel themselves towards purpose-driven success.

It's not about rowing faster, it’s about rowing together, in sync, towards a common goal.

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