#78 - Alignment: Overcoming Internal Sabotage and Digital Product Failure - Jonathon Hensley

 

 

“Oftentimes it’s not about what’s being said. It’s the fact that there’s not a shared understanding of what’s being said. It’s important that organizations proactively think about how they build a common language and manage that."

Jonathon Hensley is the co-founder and CEO of EMERGE, a digital product consulting firm, and the author of “Alignment: Overcoming internal sabotage and digital product failure”. In this episode, Jonathon shared the main motivation for him writing “Alignment”, which is to understand why digital products and services fail so commonly. He shared the concept of alignment, how it aligns with our biological need, and why it is so important for leaders to get right in order to deliver successful great products and services. Jonathon then explained the danger of when organization is at war with itself and what are the common reasons that cause internal misalignments. Jonathon shared how leaders can work towards creating alignment, and why it is important to move away from monolithic product thinking and move more towards platform thinking. Finally, Jonathon also shared some team alignment recipes that can transform one team to become a high-performing product team.  

Listen out for:

  • Career Journey - [00:05:58]
  • Silicon Valley - [00:08:19]
  • “Alignment” Book - [00:10:06]
  • Why Digital Products Fail - [00:12:17]
  • Importance of Alignment - [00:17:28]
  • Internal Misalignment - [00:20:49]
  • Alignment and Biology - [00:25:15]
  • Common Misalignment Reasons - [00:28:39]
  • Leaders Role in Alignment - [00:33:46]
  • Platform Thinking - [00:38:41]
  • Team Alignment - [00:41:06]
  • 3 Tech Lead Wisdom - [00:44:04]

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Jonathon Hensley’s Bio
Jonathon Hensley is the co-founder and CEO of Emerge, a digital product consulting firm that works with companies to improve operational agility and customer experience. For more than two decades, Jonathon has helped startups, Fortune 100 brands, technology leaders, large regional health networks, non-profit organizations and more, transform their businesses by turning strategy, user needs and new technologies into valuable digital products and services. His work focuses on alignment, helping leaders define the value they want to create in a succinct and tangible way; where to focus, why, and what it will take to achieve that outcome. His favorite part is going beyond the idea but reimagining how you bring together people, data, and processes so that a client can succeed. Jonathon writes and speaks about his experiences and insights from his career, and regularly hosts in-depth interviews with business leaders and industry insiders. He lives in the Pacific Northwest with his wife and two boys.

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Quotes

“Alignment” Book

  • I originally started the process about three years ago in writing this book, and it was out of my own curiosity and the work that we do at EMERGE around understanding why do digital products and services so commonly fail. So depending on the statistics, you would see people say that products fail anywhere between 70 and maybe 90 plus percent.

  • We’ve worked with a lot of amazing people who have consistently beaten those odds, and they haven’t just delivered one great product that’s been successful. They’ve delivered multiple products in their careers.

  • What started as a passion project to really deep dive into the study of failure, quickly became a process of interviewing product managers, designers, engineers, and executives, Chief Product Officers, CEOs, and CIOs of companies, and starting to try to understand and codify what was happening differently inside of the companies that could continuously deliver great products and services.

  • The goal of the book is to bring that forward, so that leaders had a guide to collaborate and inspire and work with their teams. And for product teams who felt stuck to take ownership of the conversation and have a tool they could use to work upstream, and bring new insight and knowledge to management and leadership to say there’s a different way to think about some of these things that can help us be successful.

  • That was really what the book became all about, is becoming that tool for product leaders and teams to work together, to create great products and services.

Why Digital Products Fail

  • I would say the most common answer that you would hear from people is that there’s a lack of market fit. While that is a huge issue, and I don’t want to make it any smaller than it is cause it is substantial, honestly, I think it’s because a lot of companies skip the fundamentals. What they’re doing is that they’re looking for shortcuts and quick wins. They’re emphasizing the approach from their vantage point.

  • The challenge is when you become that product owner or that product manager, and you need to now have the responsibility to bring a holistic point of view to how that product is created around solving whatever the problem is that product helps fulfill.

  • And the fundamentals of that get missed a lot. And then what happens is when those things get missed, instead of having empowered product teams that are really there to solve problems, what you end up having is teams that are fulfilling requirements, working towards hope instead of outcomes.

  • The work becomes ungrounded to foundational principles that are essential to allow your team to solve problems effectively, and making sure those problems are being solved in a way that align with the market, align with the organization’s resources and capabilities, and having the teamwork at its best possible level of performance to achieve the outcome that’s been set forth.

  • Organizational leaders are lured by the promise of innovations and technology without understanding the fundamental requirements that guide initiatives to the finish line. But it’s actually not the technology’s fault. The idea of this is that people’s expectations of technology are too high in the beginning when a new technology is introduced.

  • Our expectations of what Artificial Intelligence is capable of doing and can do has been ahead of the technology itself for decades. Very shortly, our expectations will be behind the actual capabilities of that technology. But it’s taken 30-plus years for that to actually be true. And this is really something that is an incredibly common thing.

  • You see, a new technology get introduced. Our expectations and the excitement and the buzz around it is incredibly high. It doesn’t meet those expectations. People abandon that technology or move away from it to either what they knew that would work before or the next thing. Those that are in the technology that build these incredible innovations, the technologies, they’re improving, they’re learning. They’re in this continuous learning cycle. And then eventually, they get there. So this promise and this expectations gap is really a huge thing that has to be managed correctly.

  • There’s this disconnect that happens very early in new technologies. Those technologies have to evolve in order to meet expectations. And leaders have to be able to diagnose what phases that technology in, and what is its propensity to actually drive change effectively at a lower cost than transitioning from the way that we do business today.

Importance of Alignment

  • Alignment is one of the most commonly assumed things from many people, and is probably in many cases, one of the least understood. In creating products and services, there’re four levels of alignment we have to consider.

    • We start with the individual. How does an individual know how their work contributes to success of the product? How does that impact its customer, its users in that product? How do they know that their work matters? That’s an incredible point of alignment that individuals need to have to be passionate, to be curious, and to know that they can make an impact through the work that they do.

      • Whether you’re a designer, an engineer, or a product manager, whether you’re overseeing entire teams, that individual alignment and understanding how your work matters becomes foundational. And we know engaged teams and people are far more effective at solving problems.
    • The second piece to that is team alignment. Does everybody on the team understand their roles, responsibilities? Are they accountable? Do they know how cumulatively they can come together to solve problems and to do great things?

    • And then the third one is organizational alignment. Has the organization aligned its resources, expectations, build teams, empowered individuals to effectively achieve the things that the company exists to do?

    • If those things aren’t happening, it can be very difficult to align with the market, which is where we find market fit, and essentially aligning with our customers or our users' needs - being able to have enough awareness of what’s the actual cost and impact of the problem that we’re solving. What’s this new idea? How are we solving it better or differently than someone else? How does that create a distinct, competitive advantage or business model opportunity or an advantage that is hard to replicate?

  • This idea of alignment at all four levels is essential. And in the top performing organizations from our research and work over the years, you find consistently that leaders from the top are working towards alignment at all times, at every level. And it’s not a one-time exercise. It’s a discipline of incredibly high impact leaders to be working on that focus of alignment at all four levels.

Internal Misalignment

  • An enterprise that is at war with itself will not have the strength or focus to survive and thrive in today’s competitive environment.

  • Many organizations are built around an old kind of command-and-control model. That is part of a by-product of how businesses were built, and how innovation started during the industrial era. What happens is that I’m going to tell you to go do this thing, and you’re going to do that thing really well, and you’re going to do it a hundred times a day. No. That’s not problem solving. That’s production.

  • When we look at this today, we need to look at how do we build empowered teams that are autonomous, that have the ability to solve problems. Great designers and engineers and producers are expensive resources. These are brilliant men and women who need the opportunity to unleash their capabilities, their life experience, and their expertise on the problem at hand.

  • When we talk about a company at war, we think about what happens then if I have different teams with competing priorities? Where’s my incentive structure for the organization? How do I actually create alignment between the product, the teams, and the company?

  • In my opinion, you have the mission or vision of the company or the product that may be the same in many cases, and then you have everything in the company from there exists in order to achieve that vision. Well, there is no vision that is possible of being achieved without customer lifetime value.

  • The number one thing that everybody in an organization has to realize is no matter who you are, what division you work in, how small or big your company, everybody contributes to customer lifetime value. It is the most important metric of all metrics. Because everything else is a byproduct about when it comes to the sustainability of that organization.

  • Many times, these KPIs for organizations, the expectations, the roles and responsibilities are misaligned to what actually drives the vision of the company. And money is the fuel. That’s all it is. The existence of the company is not to make money. That is the fuel by which to achieve that objective.

  • If the organization is not clear about that, it’s at war with itself. It’s competing and cannibalizing resources. They’re in conflict. They’re misaligned. It’s the inverse of alignment.

  • That war is happening subtly in many organizations, whether they’re 10 people or 10,000 people. And in some cases, it’s all out war where you have massive transformation and change taking place right now. This war is happening very naturally in organizations, and is something for leaders to be mindful of.

  • I’m not anti conflict. I think conflict can be actually extremely healthy, especially when it’s honest.

Alignment and Biology

  • The essence of it actually happened by accident while I was researching the book. I was aware that, from a psychological perspective, we want alignment. We don’t want conflict. We want to find connections. We want to be part of a team.

  • It’s been proven that the concept of alignment, there’s a biological need for it. It goes beyond just psychology, but there’s a biological component because when we create alignment and we’re able to solve problems, we drive engagement. It activates parts of our body with cause and effect, which creates a surge of dopamine and satisfaction that comes from interaction.

  • So you can break down the importance that it plays in not just short-term behavior of people, but long-term sustainable teams and performance when you think about this dynamic of alignment at a biological level.

  • You really understand that if you want to apply it in practice, is why empathy is the foundation of great design thinking. We just don’t intuitively or logically, or on a rational side of our brain know when something’s a good experience. We feel it. It’s impactful. It changes our mood. It changes the way that we feel about ourselves or the environment around us, whatever that may be. That is a biological reaction taking place from an experience.

  • Product teams have to be thinking about that, and embracing that from foundational alignment and then bringing themselves into alignment with their customer, which is a well documented and discussed practice in great design.

Common Misalignment Reasons

  • Often it’s talked about as market fit. And so I would say the first real issue of misalignment that you have to acknowledge is that reality that many organizations do not know their users or their customers. They make a lot of assumptions through their own lens. There’s a lot of bias that comes into practice.

  • An often case of misalignment is they have yet to do the work necessary to understand the problem that they’re solving for their end customer, what the impacts and ramifications are of that, and what the true costs are and what they’re competing for with that product. Are they competing against a direct competitor? Is it one-to-one? Or are they competing against a psychological need or a functional need of the product? How do they distinguish that? Are they competing for costs and time?

  • The other one I think that we see really common is just not realizing the impact of siloed knowledge. Knowledge management is a very difficult thing for organizations at scale to be able to do. When that information becomes siloed within an individual or team, you are unintentionally locking incredible wealth of information and knowledge. And a lot of that knowledge is yet never documented or mapped.

  • You see a lot of initiatives have to start with things like journey mapping or workflow mapping and things like that just to try to pull the institutional knowledge forward.

  • The other one out of the eight core root causes that we defined is this idea of lack of a shared understanding. Every group of people or organization, every industry for that matter, has its own language, its own shorthand - if you will - has its own acronyms, its way of talking about things, its way of communicating and it comes naturally out of efficiency.

  • When you have a team that’s evolving, an organization that’s changing or you’re working cross industry, the challenge is that my understanding of a word or an expectation versus your expectation may be different. It really requires individuals at every level of an organization to “slow down to speed up”. It’s this idea of, we need to verify the understanding. Not just what was said, but why it was said and what it meant in order to be able to effectively move forward.

  • So often we go into a meeting, we come out of the meeting, everyone’s ready to go. And then we come back, and a week later we feel like we’re having the same meeting again. We probably can all think of experience or maybe one too many that we’ve had where feels like we’re just doing the same thing again and again. It’s frustrating.

  • Oftentimes it’s not about what’s being said. It’s the fact that there’s not a shared understanding of what’s being said, and no one is in a position or understands that it needs to be reconciled. What happens a lot of times is this, when it does come time to getting reconciled, you are in a state of crisis.

  • It’s important that organizations proactively think about how they build a common language and manage that. And usually, it’s not managed by the company. What happens is it happens organically. But once leadership or teams can take control of the common language and understand that it also requires building a common understanding, they’re able to navigate one of the most insidious root causes of failure when everything else is aligned.

Leaders Role for Alignment

  • What I’ve seen is a lot of the great leaders, they are incredibly good at the fundamentals. I think the first one that is really important to highlight is this idea of they really understand the difference between strategy versus planning.

    • This idea of really getting a grasp that planning can, without a great strategy in place, gives us a false sense of security and false set of expectations. That can be extremely problematic.

    • A good strategy has to have a clear articulated vision. It has to have a clear understanding and definition of the problem that you’re solving for. It has to have a clear outcome for the business, and a clear outcome for the customer defined. It has to have a cohesive and comprehensive approach of how you’re going to get there. And it has to have a way to measure forward progress. That’s just the foundation.

    • It’s not goals. It’s not projections. It’s not schedules. These things are often today to the disservice of people that are trying to do this work, they’re talked about as strategies following a framework. That’s not a strategy. That’s a tool. Yes, but it’s not a clearly defined strategy. The framework it might help you understand what you have to fill in, but it does not take away any of the work. It’s not a shortcut.

    • Leaders who understand that are one of the reasons they can do such amazing things consistently. It’s because not only do they know that, but they know how to delegate it. They know what their responsibility in that work is.

    • A CEO cannot delegate the vision away. You just can’t do it. If they are, it’s a red flag. If you’re going into that interview, ask them who wrote that vision? Maybe lots of people contributed, but who owns it? Who’s accountable for it? It needs to be that whoever’s running the company.

  • The other one is I think that leaders today, there is a necessity to be trilingual. And what I mean by that is that leaders have to have a strong business, design and technology acumen. And I don’t mean that you have to be proficient in doing the work. But your acumen has to be well-established in those three together.

    • Because you need to be able to build effective teams, which means you need to understand what type of people’s skill sets and capabilities you need in those teams. You need to understand how to hold those types of roles and responsibilities accountable to supporting the organization, and you need to be able to mentor them and support them.

    • If customer experience is key and you’re delivering a technology product, you better know design and you better know tech. And if you don’t, that’s okay. Backfill that. Make sure you have the right people around you. Build your team up. So that you can do whatever aspect that you do best, but recognize that either you have that need to have that skill set or you need to build a team that can fulfill that necessity.

  • The third one is I think that in this day and age we have to stop thinking of products as individual monolithic solutions. We have to be thinking of as platforms.

    • Even though people use the term platforms all the time, there are very few companies that are actually delivering true platform products today. More and more products are going to take that form going forward. And it’s revolutionizing the way that traditional businesses are operating.

    • Being able to understand that difference and being able to have that interoperability and scalability is going to become an essential skill for leaders going forward.

Platform Thinking

  • The idea of a platform, it’s often talked about as think of it as a marketplace. So I have 2 groups that innately benefit one another. There are different types of platforms. And so when we traditionally think of platforms, we think of these open marketplaces and Amazon is probably the most well-known one in the world. Or something like the app store for Apple or Google Play are great examples of platforms.

  • We have Platforms as a Service for developers that are incredible. They’re not necessarily the same as a two-sided market, but they still are, in essence, a platform. They enable you to abstract and build in a cumulative value.

  • The way that I like to think about it is understanding platforms in the sense of what is the value amplifier in the technology or product that I’m creating, that I need to be able to have the ability to be interoperable across my product as it evolves. Then how can I build a path for that platform that will lead to that amplification of value in the most significant way overtime.

Team Alignment

  • A team needs to have a clear strategy. A high-performance team has a clear strategy to follow. They’re not handed requirements, or handed problems. They’re empowered to make decisions to solve that problem, to test on how to solve that problem.

  • There’s a very dangerous term. It’s used everywhere, but especially I find it to be dangerous in Silicon Valley, is fail fast and fail often. It’s a management quote. Fail fast and fail often in what context? Some people take it too literally. That’s when it becomes dangerous.

  • When you think about it from how I test hypotheses, and how I gather quickly the best information cumulatively in the fastest, most efficient way. It’s not about failure of the product or the company. It’s their experiments.

  • Having that continuous learning dynamic in a team and high-performance teams is essential. What it does is it helps elevate the collective competence of a team.

  • When you decentralize and you redistribute knowledge and information that’s coming both from the customers and from the individual experts and contributors within a team, that becomes a huge performance amplifier for a team.

  • The next one is making sure that you have knowledge management. That’s something as simple as what are the flows in your product? What’s the intended outcome of your flows?

  • If you don’t know what the intended outcome is for those, and then why they need to be improved, we have to step back and we have to reset. Because the team is more focused on delivery than outcome. The delivery output doesn’t matter if we don’t know we’re moving towards an intended outcome, and we have a way to measure it.

  • The high performance teams are embracing that collective competence, they’re building off of focus and solving problems, and they’re really emphasizing proper knowledge management. So they can collectively be working on the same things and the right things at the right time.

3 Tech Lead Wisdom

  1. One of the most important things I found as a technical leader in many projects and cases is really focusing on my team, and understanding that the most dangerous thing I can do is bring my ego and my assumptions to the table.

  2. I have found that a great idea can come from anywhere. The most powerful thing I can do as a technical leader is to mentor those who have a passion for technology to really deliver incredible things.

  3. My job as a technical leader, I tend to find, is mentoring the connection between the impact of their work, and in creating a place for them to fail successfully, quickly, and move on to realize the goal of what we’re working towards.

Transcript

[00:01:38] Episode Introduction

Henry Suryawirawan: Hello to all of you, my good friends and listeners. Welcome to another new episode of the Tech Lead Journal podcast with me your host Henry Suryawirawan. Thank you for tuning in today, listening to this episode. If this is your first time listening to Tech Lead Journal, subscribe and follow the show on your favorite podcast app and social media on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Instagram. And if you are a regular listener and enjoy listening to the episodes, will you subscribe as a patron at techleadjournal.dev/patron, and support my journey to continue producing great Tech Lead Journal episodes every week.

Based on some statistics, a lot of digital products and services fail. And the number quoted could be as high as 70 to 90%. That is a very high failure rate! While there could be many reasons that lead to those failures, we’re going to learn one of the common reason in our episode today.

My guest for today’s episode is Jonathon Hensley. He is the co-founder and CEO of EMERGE, a digital product consulting firm, and the author of “Alignment: Overcoming Internal Sabotage and Digital Product Failure”. In this episode, Jonathon first shared his main motivation for writing “Alignment”, which is to understand why digital products and services fail so commonly. He then shared the concept of alignment and why it is so important for leaders to get it right in order to deliver successful great products and services. And a fun fact, the concept of alignment actually aligns with our biological need. Jonathon then explained the danger of when organization is at war with itself, and what are some of common reasons that cost internal misalignments. Jonathon shared how leaders can work towards creating alignment and why it is important to move away from monolithic product thinking and move more towards platform thinking. Finally, Jonathon also shared some team alignment recipes that can help transform one team to become a high-performing product team.

I love my conversation with Jonathon, learning about the concept of alignment and how to avoid common internal misalignment in an organization. I think sometimes alignment is mostly assumed within a team or company, but the actual effort to build a true alignment is something that any great leader should strive for.

If you also enjoy and find this episode useful, I encourage you to share it with someone you know, either your friends or colleagues, who would also benefit from listening to this episode. Also leave a rating and review on your podcast app or share about this episode on your social media. Before we continue to the episode, let’s hear some words from our sponsor.

[00:05:16] Introduction

Henry Suryawirawan: Hey, everyone. Welcome back to another new episode of the Tech Lead Journal. Today I have with me a guest named Jonathon Hensley. He is the CEO of EMERGE, which is a digital product agency. He helps his clients to transform business strategies, the user needs and new technologies into valuable products and services. So Jonathon is an accomplished writer and also speaks a lot about product management and users' digital transformations. So he recently published a book titled “Alignment”, and today we’ll be covering a lot about the book and why it is important to have alignment. So Jonathon, welcome you to the show. Really looking forward to learning from you about alignment today.

Jonathon Hensley: Thank you so much for having me on the show, Henry.

[00:05:58] Career Journey

Henry Suryawirawan: So first of all, maybe Jonathon, if you can help to introduce yourself for people who are not aware about you yet, maybe telling us more about your highlights or maybe turning points in your career that you would like to share with all of us.

Jonathon Hensley: Sure. So I’m originally from San Francisco, grew up in the heart of Silicon Valley, right in Palo Alto. My career started at a very young age. I was a nerd at heart from the very beginning. And at a time growing up in Silicon Valley where I could go to the campus for Hewlett-Packard, and do software meetups with these incredibly brilliant engineers who would take a kid under their wing, and trade for parts to build computers, and talk about the latest approaches of writing software. And so, I had this very early passion that started with technology because of where I was. That led me into a lifelong pursuit of using technology to help people improve the way that they work and live.

A huge turning point in that process. Passion, I would say for me, with the emergence of the internet. And then also the Dotcom bust in the early two thousands where I saw really amazing transformation taking place. There were many people who were really upset and overwhelmed with this big bubble bursting at this transition. What you started to see is an incredible industry take its first step towards maturing where innovation was at the heart of it. It really instilled to me at a very young age, as a young professional, the opportunity to understand the psychology of how new technology impacts in the way that we live and work. How you do business when you’re in the technology sector? That has become a driving force of curiosity for me ever since. I’ve never let go of that incredible feeling of being a part of that time and seen the companies that had huge office buildings full of people one day and gone the next. And then an entirely new stream of innovation and entrepreneurship come through in a very short period of time right after. And to be a part of that, to see the evolution of hardware, software coming together in that time period, it’s one of my greatest memories and really did set the tone for my entire career.

[00:08:19] Silicon Valley

Henry Suryawirawan: Really interesting that you actually grew up in the center of the innovation site of the world, so to speak. So Silicon Valley was well known since the beginning due to that. You have seen its ups and downs, I guess. And now it’s kind of like ups again with all these recent technology changes. I’m sure you have learned a lot of things in Silicon Valley. But what would you tell for people who haven’t been there before? What will be your best description of Silicon Valley or maybe it’s culture?

Jonathon Hensley: I think the Silicon Valley culture, it’s changed a lot. It went from the idea of starting a tech company out of your garage, which is the beginnings of many famous stories. And it’s evolved into this incredible incubator for innovation and coming together with venture capital. It’s become an epicenter to bring people together from all over the world to want to contribute to technology and be a part of it. And I think that the Bay area has an energy all of its own that is very hard to produce or recreate. You can see it and feel it anywhere you go. There’s a conversation in every coffee shop about the next big tech thing that’s happening or solving that problem.

What I love most personally about that environment is that there’s this constant pursuit of solving the next problem. I think that it creates such a unique place in the world. I’ve had the benefit of traveling around the world and speaking a lot and teaching and being a participant and learning from so many other great people. But San Francisco is unique in its own way of how people come together to do just that and solve problems, and I think it will continue to be a very special place for a very long time.

Henry Suryawirawan: Thanks for sharing that. So for me, I myself haven’t experience working there. So it’s really great to hear such passionate people, you know, working together and trying to solve the next big problem.

[00:10:06] “Alignment” Book

Henry Suryawirawan: So moving on to the book that you just recently published, it’s titled “Alignment”. Maybe you can share a little bit why did you write the book? What kind of problems that you saw and you try to convey as a message in the book?

Jonathon Hensley: Sure. So the book came out of a labor of love. I originally started the process about three years ago in writing this book, and it was out of my own curiosity and the work that we do at EMERGE around understanding why do digital products and services so commonly fail. So depending on the statistics, you would see people say that products fail anywhere between 70 and maybe 90 plus percent. We’ve worked with a lot of amazing people who have consistently beaten those odds, and they haven’t just delivered one great product that’s been successful. They’ve delivered multiple products in their careers. And so when you look at that, there’s an incredible story behind that data about what’s happening and what’s different.

We had been a part of many successful products. We’d worked on some really challenging products and I wanted to step back and understand the bigger story. So what started as a passion project to really deep dive into the study of failure, quickly became a process of interviewing product managers, designers, engineers, and executives, Chief Product Officers, CEOs, and CIOs of companies, and starting to try to understand and codify what was happening differently inside of the companies that could continuously deliver great products and services. That became the goal of the book is to bring that forward. So that leaders had a guide, in a way, to collaborate and inspire and work with their teams. And for product teams who felt stuck to take ownership of the conversation and have a tool they could use to work upstream, and bring new insight and knowledge to management and leadership to say there’s a different way to think about some of these things that can help us be successful. And so that was really what the book became all about, is becoming that tool for product leaders and teams to work together, to create great products and services.

[00:12:17] Why Digital Products Failing

Henry Suryawirawan: So you mentioned a very interesting statistics. I think this traditionally in the past, they say, IT projects always fail. And now, digital products and services also still statistically very highly likely to fail, like you mentioned 70 to 90 plus percent. That is actually pretty high to me. So why do you think all these things happen? Technologies have improved a lot. People also have learned with so many people just pouring over knowledge on the blogs, webinars and all that. Why still it’s not solved? Why digital products still failing?

Jonathon Hensley: Well, there’re a lot of common answers to that. I would say the most common answer that you would hear from people is that there’s a lack of market fit. While that is, I think, a huge issue, and I don’t want to make it any smaller than it is cause it is substantial. Honestly, I think it’s because a lot of companies skip the fundamentals. What they’re doing is that they’re looking for shortcuts and quick wins. They’re emphasizing the approach from their vantage point. If you’re a product leader, and you have an engineering background, you’re going to come at it from an engineering point of view. And if you’re a great product manager, who’s maybe a great business analyst, you’re going to come from it from an analyst perspective. And so, there’s nothing wrong with that. But the challenges is when you become that product owner or that product manager, and you need to now have the responsibility to bring a holistic point of view to how that product is created around solving whatever the problem is that product helps fulfill.

And the fundamentals of that get missed a lot. They get missed in business. And then what happens is when those things get missed, instead of having empowered product teams that are really there to solve problems, what you end up having is teams that are fulfilling requirements, working towards hope instead of outcomes. Some might take that harsh, but it’s completely true. The work becomes ungrounded to foundational principles that are essential to allow your team to solve problems effectively, and making sure those problems are being solved in a way that align with the market, align with the organization’s resources and capabilities, and having the team work at its best possible level of performance to achieve the outcome that’s been set forth. And so I think that there’s a fundamental aspect there that is really holding many companies back.

Henry Suryawirawan: And I also found one of the quote in the book. It mentioned that “organizational leaders are lured by the promise of innovations and technology without understanding the fundamental requirements that guide initiatives to the finish line”. I mean, yes, there are plenty of technology breakthroughs, innovations, maybe we can call out like blockchain or maybe AI, cloud. Do you think that all these new innovations also, in a sense, play a part into the failure of all these digital products?

Jonathon Hensley: They do. Absolutely. But it’s actually not the technology’s fault. Let me expand on that. So there’s something called Amara’s Law. The idea of this is that people’s expectations of technology are too high in the beginning when a new technology is introduced. So let’s use Artificial Intelligence as the example. When AI was first introduced, it was introduced back in the eighties. I can remember it being a major thing. It became another theme in the late nineties. And here it’s a major thing again. Our expectations of what Artificial Intelligence is capable of doing and can do, has been ahead of the technology itself for decades. Very shortly, our expectations will be behind the actual capabilities of that technology. But it’s taken 30-plus years for that to actually be true. And this is really something that is an incredibly common thing. So you see, a new technology get introduced. Our expectations and the excitement and the buzz around it is incredibly high. It doesn’t meet those expectations. People abandon that technology or move away from it to either what they knew that would work before or the next thing. Those that are in the technology that build these incredible innovations, the technologies, they’re improving, they’re learning. They’re in this continuous learning cycle. And then eventually, they get there. And so this promise and this expectations gap is really a huge thing that has to be managed correctly.

When you take a leader in an organization, they wouldn’t be the leader of that organization if they weren’t really good at their job, very smart individual, able to make good decisions with very little information. It’s challenging if they can’t manage that expectation of that technology, and that isn’t something that’s talked about. It’s not something that is at the forefront of our conversations when we talk about innovation and new technologies. And that’s not how technology is sold. Why would I sell you a promise that’s going to fall flat? So there’s this disconnect that happens very early on in new technologies. Those technologies have to evolve in order to meet expectations. And leaders have to be able to diagnose what phases that technology in? And what is its propensity to actually drive change effectively at a lower cost than transitioning from the way that we do business today?

[00:17:28] Importance of Alignment

Henry Suryawirawan: And I think one of the fundamental maybe requirements, so to speak or skill set that you want to emphasize on the book, is actually called alignment. I think many people would have understood about the term alignment. But maybe in your view, as the author of this book, can you help to describe what do you think is alignment? And why is it so critical for people or teams to actually have this alignment for the success of their either digital products or services?

Jonathon Hensley: Sure. So I think alignment is one of the most commonly assumed things from many people, and is probably in many cases, one of the least understood. So when we talk about alignment in the context of what we’re talking about today, and in creating products and services, there’re four levels of alignment we have to consider.

And I’ll go from the inside out. So the inside out approach to that, we start with the individual. How does an individual know how their work contributes to success of the product? How does that impact its customer, its users in that product? How do they know that their work matters? That’s an incredible point of alignment that individuals need to have to be passionate, to be curious, and to know that they can make an impact through the work that they do. So whether you’re a designer, an engineer, or a product manager, whether you’re overseeing entire teams, that individual alignment and understanding how your work matters becomes foundational. And we know engaged teams and people are far more effective at solving problems.

The second piece to that is team alignment. Does everybody on the team understand their roles, responsibilities? Are they accountable? Do they know how cumulatively they can come together to solve problems and to do great things? And so that’s really important.

And then the third one is organizational alignment. Has the organization aligned its resources, expectations, build teams, empowered individuals to effectively achieve the things that the company exists to do?

If those things aren’t happening, it can be very difficult to align with the market, which is where we find market fit, and essentially aligning with our customers or our users' needs. Being able to have enough awareness of what’s the actual cost and impact of the problem that we’re solving? What’s this new idea? How are we solving it better or differently than someone else? How does that create distinct, competitive advantage or business model opportunity or an advantage that is hard to replicate?

This idea of alignment at all four levels is essential. And in the top performing organizations from our research and work over the years, you find consistently that leaders from the top are working towards alignment at all times, at every level. And it’s not a one-time exercise. It’s a discipline of incredibly high impact leaders to be working on that focus of alignment at all four levels.

Henry Suryawirawan: Thanks for sharing all these four levels. So, just to recap, there are four different levels. You mentioned individual, teams, organization, and market. I think it’s really interesting insights, definitely. Like what you mentioned, we all assume we are all aligned, maybe some speech or maybe some message over the time. You know, you keep repeating yourself, but actually it’s least understood, not necessarily people get to align to the core.

[00:20:49] Internal Misalignment

Henry Suryawirawan: I also found another quote, which I find really interesting to share. The book mentioned “an enterprise that is at war with itself will not have the strength or focus to survive and thrive in today’s competitive environment”. So this is a quote from a professor called John O. Whitney. I find it really interesting because we can see it especially in big enterprise or maybe big startups where people call it politics, so to speak. Can you maybe elaborate a little bit more on here? What do you mean by at war with itself?

Jonathon Hensley: Sure. Well, many organizations are built around an old kind of command-and-control model. That is part of a by-product of how businesses were built, and how innovation started during the industrial era. What happens is that I’m going to tell you to go do this thing, and you’re going to do that thing really well, and you’re going to do it a hundred times a day. No. That’s not problem solving. That’s production. There’s a role in that in business, and I get that. But when we look at this today, we need to look at how do we build empowered teams that are autonomous, that have the ability to solve problems. Great designers and engineers and producers are expensive resources. These are brilliant men and women who need the opportunity to unleash their capabilities, their life experience, and their expertise on the problem at hand. And so, it’s really essential to do that.

When we talk about a company at war, we think about, okay, well, what happens then if I have different teams with competing priorities? Where’s my incentive structure for the organization? How do I actually create alignment between the product, the teams, and the company? I’ll give one very specific thing. Many companies understand the idea of customer lifetime value. But I would say many companies also don’t understand where it fits into the hierarchy of the company. In my opinion, you have the mission or vision of the company or the product that may be the same in many cases, and then you have everything in the company from there exists in order to achieve that vision. Well, there is no vision that is possible of being achieved without customer lifetime value.

The number one thing that everybody in an organization has to realize is no matter who you are, what division you work in, how small or big your company, everybody contributes to customer lifetime value. It is the most important metric of all metrics. Because everything else is a byproduct about when it comes to the sustainability of that organization. Many times, these KPIs for organizations, the expectations, the roles and responsibilities are misaligned to what actually drives the vision of the company. And money is the fuel. That’s all it is. The existence of the company is not to make money. That is the fuel by which to achieve that objective. And if the organization is not clear about that, it’s at war with itself. It’s competing and cannibalizing resources. You have people who build thiefdoms within the organizations and they hoard information or they’re working counterproductive to other groups in the organization. And they’re in conflict. They’re misaligned. It’s the inverse of alignment.

That war is happening subtly in many organizations, whether they’re 10 people or 10,000 people. And in some cases, it’s all out war where you have massive transformation and change taking place right now. Some who are embracing that change, and for others that creates conflict and scarcity and a lot of fear because there’s an uncertain outcome of what that means. And so this war is happening very naturally in organizations, and is something for leaders to be mindful of. I’m not anti conflict. I think conflict can be actually extremely healthy, especially when it’s honest. I think that it has to be more about, we need to be able to challenge and go after the hard things in organizations to not allow ourselves to fall into this unintentional war within.

Henry Suryawirawan: Thanks for sharing the gist of customer lifetime value and all that. I mean like companies, intentionally, I believe they understand it. But in practice or in execution, sometimes this, fall through because individuals or just misalignment of objectives or just people competing unhealthily internally.

[00:25:15] Alignment and Biology

Henry Suryawirawan: And you brought up another good analogy. I find it interesting. Alignment and biological needs actually seamlessly synergized. Tell us, how do you find these connections between alignment and actually biology?

Jonathon Hensley: Yeah. So during my research, I was really interested in this idea. I’ve had an interest myself in psychology for 25 plus years. But the essence of it actually happened by accident while I was researching the book. I was aware that, from a psychological perspective, we want alignment. We don’t want conflict. We want to find connection. We want to be part of a team. We want to do great things. That part of it wasn’t really that elusive, but what happened was, I was in London, and I met an individual by the name of Dan Cable, who was one of the leading neuroscientists in the world, and he’s also a professor at the London Business School. I was listening to him give a talk about his book, “Alive at Work”. and He drew a connection just through anecdote of alignment. I decided I had to meet him and I had to interview him for the book.

We ended up having an incredible conversation around really understanding that in neuroscience, it’s been proven that the concept of alignment is actually there’s a biological need for it. It goes beyond just psychology, but there’s a biological component because when we create alignment and we’re able to solve problems, we drive engagement. It activates parts of our body with cause and effect, which creates a surge of dopamine and satisfaction that comes from interaction. And so you can break down the importance that it plays in not just short-term behavior of people, but long-term sustainable teams and performance when you think about this dynamic of alignment at a biological level. His insight and research related to that was absolutely groundbreaking in really understanding why this is so critical.

One of the discussions that happened from that is you really understand that if you want to apply it in practice, is why empathy is the foundation of great design thinking. We just don’t intuitively or logically, or in a rational side of our brain know when something’s a good experience. We feel it. It’s impactful. It changes our mood. It changes the way that we feel about ourselves or the environment around us, whatever that may be. That is a biological reaction taking place from an experience. So product teams have to be thinking about that, and embracing that from foundational alignment and then bringing themselves into alignment with their customer, which is a well documented and discussed practice in great design. So that entire idea was in an hour with Dan was completely just connected and became such an integral part of the book and something that is probably still one of my favorite aspects of talking about alignment or when I work with teams, is discussing that very thing.

Henry Suryawirawan: Thanks for sharing the insights. Yes. I found it really interesting as well. And for those leaders who think that your people are not interested to get alignment, I think it’s actually not true. People biologically need to get alignment so that they can be what you mentioned about problem solving, natural creativity, and things like that. So definitely people want to align. It’s about how we can get them to align.

[00:28:39] Common Misalignment Reasons

Henry Suryawirawan: Speaking about misalignment, why leaders thing people are not aligned. What do you think are some of the root causes for misalignments? Or maybe you have seen it in your consulting and also your experience being in Silicon Valley. What are the top two or three most misalignment reasons why people in the end did not deliver great successful products?

Jonathon Hensley: Well, I think, the one thing I started with earlier on was this idea of that, often it’s talked about as market fit. And so I would say the first real issue of misalignment that you have to acknowledge is that reality that many organizations do not know their users or their customers. They make a lot of assumptions through their own lens. There’s a lot of bias that comes into practice. An often case of misalignment is they have yet to do the work necessary to understand the problem that they’re solving for their end customer. What the impacts and ramifications are of that? And what the true costs are and what they’re competing for with that product? Are they competing against a direct competitor? Is it one-to-one? Or are they competing against a psychological need or a functional need of the product? How do they distinguish that? Are they competing for costs and time? There’s a lot of ways to think about what the exchange is between the business that is offering the product and in the actual customer or user. So that’s fundamentally one of them that has to be acknowledged.

The other one I think that we see really common is just not realizing the impact of siloed knowledge. So organizational complexity in dealing with the cost of siloed knowledge. Knowledge management is a very difficult thing for organizations at scale to be able to do. When that information becomes siloed within an individual or team, you are unintentionally locking incredible wealth of information and knowledge. And a lot of that knowledge is yet never documented or mapped. So you see a lot of initiatives have to start with things like journey mapping or workflow mapping and things like that just to try to pull the institutional knowledge forward. Well, that has a lot of impacts which we can discuss it. You know, it’s probably an entire show in itself.

I think the other one out of the eight core root causes that we defined that I’d like to focus on at least today is this idea of lack of a shared understanding. Let me explain that one a little bit. Every group of people or organization, every industry for that matter, has its own language, its own shorthand, if you will. Has its own acronyms, its way of talking about things, its way of communicating and it comes naturally out of efficiency. But when you have a team that’s evolving, an organization that’s changing or you’re working cross industry, the challenge is that my understanding of a word or an expectation versus your expectation maybe different. It really requires individuals at every level of an organization to “slow down to speed up”, as the old saying goes, it’s this idea of, we need to verify the understanding. Not just what was said, but why it was said and what it meant in order to be able to effectively move forward.

So you’ll see this happen. Maybe you’ve experienced this yourself. So often we go into a meeting, we come out of the meeting, everyone’s ready to go. And then we come back, and a week later we feel like we’re having the same meeting again. We probably can all think of experience or maybe one too many that we’ve had where feels like we’re just doing the same thing again and again. It’s frustrating. People get mad. People get angry. People get concerned. People leave their jobs because of this pattern. Oftentimes it’s not about what’s being said. It’s the fact that there’s not a shared understanding of what’s being said, and no one is in a position or understands that it needs to be reconciled. What happens a lot of times is this, when it does come time to getting reconciled, you are in a state of crisis.

So it’s important that organizations proactively think about how they build a common language and manage that. And usually, it’s not managed by the company. What happens is it happens organically. But once leadership or teams can take control of the common language and understand that it also requires building a common understanding, they’re able to navigate one of the most insidious root causes of failure when everything else is aligned. And so that becomes a really important issue.

Henry Suryawirawan: Thanks for sharing this shared understanding. Because I’ve also invited few leaders talking about software development, why software projects fail as well. So one of the things also commonly mentioned is about communication and this shared understanding. And that’s why Domain-Driven Design is also one thing that is very popular this day to create ubiquitous language, like bounded context. Make sure that people either you’re a software developer, product owner, whatever role, you have the same shared understanding about whatever common terms that you use within the team or the organization. So I think it kind of like ties back from software development to product management. Thanks for sharing all these misalignments. So for people who want to know more what are the other common misalignments, make sure to check in the book. There are, I think, in total of eight of them.

[00:33:46] Leaders Role in Alignment

Henry Suryawirawan: Moving on from this, we know why people get misaligned. So what do you think the responsibility of a leader? What can we do practically to actually ensure that people get aligned? Or maybe what kind of actions that they need to do to achieve this?

Jonathon Hensley: So I think for leaders, there’s a couple of really important things that go back to that idea of foundational aspects. What I’ve seen is a lot of the great leaders that I’ve had the opportunity to work with or were interviewed for the book or that I’ve researched, they are incredibly good at the fundamentals. I think the first one that is really important to highlight is this idea of they really understand the difference between strategy versus planning. This idea of really getting a grasp that planning can, without a great strategy in place, gives us a false sense of security and false set of expectations. That can be extremely problematic.

For those listening, let me define just very quickly what the foundation of a good strategy has to encompass. A good strategy has to have a clear articulated vision. It has to have a clear understanding and definition of the problem that you’re solving for. It has to have a clear outcome for the business, and a clear outcome for the customer defined. It has to have a cohesive and comprehensive approach of how you’re going to get there. And it has to have a way to measure forward progress. That’s just the foundation. I mean, strategy has so many other facets to it. But fundamentally, that is critical. It’s not goals. It’s not projections. It’s not schedules. These things are often today to the disservice of people that are trying to do this work, they’re talked about as strategies following a framework. Strategy is embracing this new model. And it’s like, that’s not a strategy. That’s a tool. Yes, but it’s not a clearly defined strategy. The framework it might help you understand what you have to fill in, but it does not take away any of the work. It’s not a shortcut.

So leaders that understand that are one of the reasons they can do such amazing things consistently. It’s because not only do they know that, but they know how to delegate it. They know what their responsibility in that work is. So, as an example, a CEO cannot delegate the vision away. You just can’t do it. If they are, it’s a red flag. If you’re going into that interview, ask them who wrote that vision? Maybe lots of people contributed, but who owns it? Who’s accountable for it? It needs to be that whoever’s running the company. That’s an essential piece versus really diagnosing and understanding the problem that you need to solve. Understanding the outcomes, understanding these other facets. Those are things that you rely on the expertise and skills across an organization, and to bring more definition and more fidelity to. That, I think, is one aspect.

The other one is I think that leaders today, there is a necessity to be trilingual. And what I mean by that is that leaders have to have a strong business, design and technology acumen. And I don’t mean that you have to be proficient in doing the work. But your acumen has to be well-established in those three together. Because you need to be able to build effective teams, which means you need to understand what type of people’s skill sets and capabilities you need in those teams. You need to understand how to hold those types of roles and responsibilities accountable to supporting the organization, and you need to be able to mentor them and support them. So I think being trilingual and having that knowledge becomes essential for leaders. Especially as more and more organizations are trying to put emphasis on customer experience, is just one example. If customer experience is key and you’re delivering a technology product, you better know design and you better know tech. And if you don’t, that’s okay. Backfill that. Make sure you have the right people around you. Build your team up. So that you can do whatever aspect that you do best, but recognize that either you have that need to have that skill set or you need to build a team that can fulfill that necessity. So that would be two.

The third one is I think that in this day and age we have to stop thinking of products as individual monolithic solutions. We have to be thinking of as platforms. Platform thinking, I think, is one of the thing that is probably on the most bleeding edge. Even though people use the term platforms all the time, there are very few companies that are actually delivering true platform products today. More and more products are going to take that form going forward. And it’s revolutionizing the way that traditional businesses are operating. So being able to understand that difference and being able to have that interoperability and scalability is going to become an essential skill for leaders going forward.

[00:38:41] Platform Thinking

Henry Suryawirawan: When you mentioned about platform, can you tell us more, what do you mean by platform? Because again, this term is probably commonly used, but maybe not well understood. So you are talking about technological platform or is it something different? What do you mean by platforms here?

Jonathon Hensley: Yeah. So, the idea of a platform. It’s often talked about as think of it as a marketplace. So I have 2 groups that innately benefit one another. But there are different types of platforms. And so when we traditionally think of platforms, we think of these open marketplaces and Amazon is probably the most well-known one in the world. Or something like the app store for Apple or Google Play are great examples of platforms. We have Platforms as a Service for developers that are incredible. They’re not necessarily the same as a two-sided market, but they still are, in essence, a platform. They enable you to abstract and build in a cumulative value. So the way that I like to think about it is understanding platforms in the sense of what is the value amplifier in the technology or product that I’m creating, that I need to be able to have the ability to be interoperable across my product as it evolves. Then how can I build a path for that platform that will lead to that amplification of value in the most significant way overtime.

Companies take very different approaches. There’s one company I absolutely love based here in the United States called Rackspace. They’re a hosting company. They do managed hosting services. They’ve realized that they can actually create a platform out of a branded concept, which is fanatical support. Their support structure is absolutely unbelievable, and they’ve innovated existing technologies of just about the experience, how do you build a platform. And they’ve determined how they can actually amplify that value across the entire customer journey. That allows them to deliver on their promises consistently at scale, as they continue to grow. And so I think leaders need to understand that concept of platform thinking so they can understand how it applies to the business and what they’re creating.

Henry Suryawirawan: Thanks for emphasizing the importance of value amplifier. I think this is probably one of the critical things when you think about platform, what things that can allow you to amplify the value, and also allows you to scale easier, right? Not necessarily adding more people or resources to it.

[00:41:06] Team Alignment

Henry Suryawirawan: So, we know what leaders need to do. But then it comes back to the team itself, right? They need to be aligned. What do you think are the recipes that you can tell us to be a high performing product teams? What do you think are some of the attributes that you can see from your experience, teams that are really fully aligned and productive and deliver successful products?

Jonathon Hensley: Yeah. We’ve touched on several of the points. But as they relate to the team, a team needs to have a clear strategy. A high-performance team has a clear strategy to follow. They’re not handed requirements, or handed problems. They’re empowered to make decisions to solve that problem, to test on how to solve that problem. There’s a very dangerous term. It’s used everywhere, but especially I find it to be dangerous in Silicon Valley, is fail fast and fail often. It’s a management quote. Fail fast and fail often in what context? Some people take it too literal. That’s when it becomes dangerous. But when you think about it from how I test hypotheses, and how I gather quickly the best information cumulatively in the fastest, most efficient way. It’s not about failure of the product or the company. It’s their experiments. That aspect, having that continuous learning dynamic in a team and high-performance teams, is essential. What it does is it helps elevate the collective competence of a team. When you decentralize and you redistribute knowledge and information that’s coming both from the customers and from the individual experts and contributors within a team, that becomes a huge performance amplifier for a team.

The next one is making sure that you have knowledge management. That’s something we talked about before, but something as simple as what are the flows in your product? What’s the intended outcome of your flows? I will tell you probably 9 out of 10 product managers that I asked that question, can’t answer it. Product manager, in my opinion, should be able to answer that question without having to pull up a single document. If you don’t know what the intended outcome is for those, and then why they need to be improved, we have to step back and we have to reset. Because the team is more focused on delivery than outcome. The delivery output doesn’t matter if we don’t know we’re moving towards an intended outcome, and we have a way to measure it. So the high performance teams are embracing that collective competence, they’re building off of focus and solving problems, and they’re really emphasizing proper knowledge management. So they can collectively be working on the same things and the right things at the right time.

Henry Suryawirawan: Thanks for sharing these attributes. So I think people sometimes, yes, we don’t understand the outcome fully. We know the gist of it, but yeah, we tend to focus on just delivery, the task or the next story in line, what kind of things, what features to build? So thanks for emphasizing that we need to understand the outcome without actually pulling a document. There is also another interesting statistics that you just now mentioned: 9 out of 10 product managers might not be able to answer you the outcome straightaway on top of their mind.

[00:44:04] 3 Tech Lead Wisdom

Henry Suryawirawan: So this has been a pleasant conversation, Jonathon. Really thank you for sharing all your knowledge. Due to the time, I think we need to wrap up soon. But before I let you go, I have one last question that I normally ask all my guests, which is to share your three technical leadership wisdom. It could be tech, it could be product. Would you be able to share some of the wisdom that you think will be good to share with the audience here as a learning, as the wisdom, so to speak?

Jonathon Hensley: Yeah. I would say that from my experience, after everything that we’ve talked about today, I think that one of the most important things I found as a technical leader in many projects and cases is really focusing on my team, and understanding that the most dangerous thing I can do is bring my ego and my assumptions to the table. I have found that a great idea can come from anywhere. The most powerful thing I can do as a technical leader is to mentor those who have passion for technology to really deliver incredible things. So my job as a technical leader, I tend to find, is mentoring the connection between the impact of their work, and in creating a place for them to fail successfully, quickly, and move on to realize the goal of what we’re working towards. That has been essential, I think, with everybody that I’ve had the tremendous pleasure of working with.

Henry Suryawirawan: Thanks for sharing this. So Jonathon, for people who want to follow you or find more about the book, maybe you can share where they can find it online.

Jonathon Hensley: Sure. So the book is available at Amazon.com. Just search for the title “Alignment: Overcoming internal sabotage and digital products failure”.

Henry Suryawirawan: Thanks for that. So, yeah, Jonathon really pleasure to have this conversation. I wish you good luck in transforming all digital products and services that you touch to be more successful and get more alignment.

Jonathon Hensley: Thank you so much. It was a pleasure to be on the show and great to have this conversation with you today.

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