The Key to Product Alignment Is ‘Innovating Inside a Box’
As a product manager, one of the most important things is reaching alignment with stakeholders. This can be difficult at times, since priorities aren’t always aligned, and many stakeholders may have different agendas. However, if you simply just ignore stakeholder input, then the product itself will also suffer. Therefore, stakeholder alignment is key to developing a product strategy, in addition to building and developing a successful product.
One concept that I’ve found great success with is known as “innovating inside a box.” This tenet helps give product managers freedom to innovate and develop their products in the way they want while also aligning them with the broader business strategy and stakeholders. Innovating inside a box is essentially establishing guardrails that everyone agrees on. By making the limits clear at the outset, you can focus more purely on the creativity and development of the product at hand than concerns that it perfectly aligns with business strategy. Innovating inside a box consists of three steps.
Develop a North Star
To begin alignment, it is best to sit in a meeting with all key stakeholders and take the time to define the North Star of the product. A North Star is meant to serve as an anchor for a product strategy. It defines the why of the product and helps drive conversations about how business strategy and customer value intertwines.
If at any point a question is raised about whether or not to implement a feature, then one can point back to the North Star to see if it aligns. A North Star is the product vision statement, and by developing this together with stakeholders, it helps provide clarity for both the product team and stakeholders on what areas to focus on in order to navigate toward the final destination.
Now that a North Star has been established, the question becomes: “How do we know if our product has been successful in building toward the North Star?” This is the time to align and discuss with stakeholders the KPIs that need to be measured in order to track success. Defining these KPIs across the board up front will help the rest of the organization meaningfully track how well (or not well) a product is doing. Instead of taking the time to explain success and why it is meaningful, KPIs related to the North Star allow for an organization to see the success/failure of features immediately, as they will be measured specifically against those defined KPIs.
One example of a KPI would be AirBNB’s “nights booked.” They have aligned on this KPI because it captures both growth and customer value, and it is somewhat within their control.
With both the North Star and KPIs in hand, the box is now established. A product manager can use the guardrails to define the scope of their thought process, production strategy, and prioritization. Now they can innovate however they see fit, as long as they ensure they remain within the designated parameters. This means that the product manager no longer has to think of features for every single part of their product experience, but can instead focus all of their creativity and energy in a specific direction.
In some ways, it’s akin to a commissioned painting; the customer could have specific expectations that the artist paint an apple, for example, on a five-foot canvas. The apple and the canvas become the North Star, but it is up to the artist to define the details.
But what if this aristocrat didn’t tell you anything, and still had unspoken expectations? You might paint a watermelon on a small canvas before even finding out about the fact that an apple would resonate with the customer. Developing the box helps you find an area of focus to double down on, iterate on, and optimize, without wasting a ton of effort on building things that may not be relevant in the overall picture. The box can be freeing.
Overall, stakeholder alignment is crucial for product managers, and I believe leveraging this concept can help the product team align their strategy better for both the business and the consumer.