The Dreaded Organizational Disconnect

Product Management, central to the organization, is perched to see all levels of dysfunction. Unfortunately, we also see the disconnect that creates chaos

As Product Managers, we sit in the center of the organization (regardless of our reporting structure). We see/experience/deal with sales, support, engineering, marketing, production, and management. In any organization, we really are the ones who have all the connections and threads that make an organization hum. Or not. Unfortunately, this means that often we are caught in the middle of turf wars, and dominance battles. Hence, the disconnect between reality (what the business is doing) and what the senior leadership team perceives.

Tell me if this sounds familiar. You are working under the strategic assumption to launch 3 new products over the next 18 months, and that realistically, the organization can deliver an additional $17M in revenue. You have done the analysis, and the market validation to justify this. You know it will not be easy, but it is feasible. Then the executive VP flies in and states in an organization wide meeting that the goal for that same 18 month period is actually $32M in additional revenue, and that it will come from the riskiest of the three products you are readying for introduction.

Oh. My. God.

Suddenly there is terror among the ranks. Our current production team could never support this ramp, and our products are complex enough that STARTING TODAY would not be soon enough to bring a contract manufacturer up to speed. R&D is shuddering as there are several new pieces of technology for the “chosen” product to launch that are not even beyond the theoretical model phase. Or sales quivering in their boots wondering how they will chase more than 2x’s the opportunities they do today effectively. I could go on and on.

Why does this happen? I have several theories:

The division has had a poor strategic planning function for a long time. Either it is a flurry of activity, then placed on the shelf and ignored until it is dusted off for the next planning offsite, or it is totally haphazard. There is no community support for the strategy, and this leads to chaotic efforts, and external interference.

The division leadership (usually a general manager or VP/GM) is disconnected, and “wings it” when managing up.

I have seen this a number of times, where the VP/GM is either a hopeless optimist (yes, I am aware of that juxtaposition of words), or is truly not connected to the business at the grass roots. He might be an MBA that parachuted in, and runs the business via Excel, or he may have troubles connecting with the groups in the organization.

Or, worst case, he is lobbying for a promotion, and is expecting to be gone before the SHTF.

Things are really fouled up, and the GM is hiding it from the senior leadership team. Development projects are quarters behind, there are quality issues on the production floor, and support is being murdered by a former product launched that is busy ripening in the field (what I term “Banana Product Development”).

But instead of facing that head on, the instinct is to hide these flaws, and manage up the message that everything’s A-OK.

There are no quick answers to these issues, but a common thread is that either product management is absent (like caffeine and 7UP, never had it, never will), or they are cast into the roll of tactical firefighter, not leveraged for their inherent strengths, or the worst yet, they are hamstrung and kept ineffective to preserve the power hierarchies in {engineering|sales|operations}.

As a product manager, regardless of how difficult these discussions will be, you MUST be the voice of reason. You must be strong enough to advocate the truth and reality.

But you can’t be too negative. Things are messed up, programs are off the tracks, don’t just whinge about it, offer recommended solutions. Is it a realistic look at the resource planning and utilization? It is the prioritization? Is it just an aggressive appetite that is bigger than reality?

Lastly, from our perch in the hub of the organization, we have the ability forestall these disconnects. It is not easy, and it requires a delicate touch, but it is well within our grasp. We need to have the authority to speak truth to those in power, and to provide a path forward that is realistic and achievable.

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