As a product leader, one of your primary responsibilities is to connect the leadership team’s vision of their EdTech product with the actual needs of the product’s users. To do this well, you must execute leadership’s vision responsively. This means modulating the product roadmap as your product team surfaces new information about user needs or identifies risks associated with leadership’s vision.
Leadership teams are naturally more future-focused. They are more likely to spend their time thinking about how to develop a product roadmap that pushes the product into innovative new spaces. They respond primarily to market pressures, competitors’ activities, and shareholders’ demands.
Your product team, on the other hand, is more likely to have their fingers on the pulse of what is and isn’t working well with the existing product. They are deeply familiar with what users like, don’t like, and downright despise. As a result, they are more likely to develop priorities based on what they know of existing users.
You may find yourself as the primary channel through which leadership and product teams communicate. Because of this, you can sometimes feel caught in the middle — stuck between the desires of leadership and the on-the-ground user challenges as exposed and understood by their product teams. The reality is that you are tasked with balancing two separate but reasonable mindsets and synthesizing them into a plan of action that best serves the product and its users.
How to Develop a Product Roadmap That Connects Leadership’s Product Vision with the Product Team’s Understanding of User Needs
So how exactly can product directors navigate their roles as advocates, user ambassadors, and conflict resolution counselors gracefully? Following are a few tactics to promote internal alignment as well as the health of your product.
Be the voice of the user for your leadership team — and the voice of leadership for your product team.
As a product leader, it’s your job to be a conduit between the leadership team and product team. If there’s an inherent conflict between leadership’s vision and your product team’s understanding of how best to serve the product and its users, then you must proactively work to synthesize both sets of interests into a workable solution.
Your success in doing so hinges on your ability to help the leadership team understand the product team’s concerns and vice versa.
When speaking with the leadership team, you must make sure they really hear the voice of the user. Present your users’ most pressing needs as your product team sees them. Back those claims up with credible, validated UX research findings. And make sure you give a realistic picture of the risks and rewards associated with pursuing leadership’s current vision. Whether or not this results in the desired changes, it’s always worth advocating for your product team and your users, too.
Conversely, you must be the voice of leadership for your product team. Your goal should be to help your product team understand leadership’s vision and the rationale behind it — while making space for them to voice their concerns.
Ideally, this process will result in a strengthened vision for your product that balances leadership’s goals with the needs of your users. At a minimum, your efforts should yield greater internal alignment.
What does that look like, exactly? A willingness on the part of your entire team to recognize and assume the risks associated with the agreed-upon product roadmap so everyone can work together to minimize them.
Build the right team, and give them the tools to do the right things
It’s your job to help your leadership and product teams understand each other’s concerns and, as much as possible, come into alignment around shared goals. It’s probably obvious that you can set yourself up for success by building out the right team. For example, this might mean selecting team members to lead initiatives who are most open to balancing user needs with organizational goals.
Once you’ve got the right product team in place, you need to trust that they are capable of discerning risks and prioritizing among them. You can leverage their skills by fostering an environment of collaboration that puts each member of the team in position to have input and decision-making power – giving them some real skin in the game. At Openfield, we’ve achieved seamless, real-time collaborative results by using tools like Figma with our product and engineering teams. Encouraging these teams to virtually roll up their sleeves together has led to co-working sessions inside of Figma prototypes where design changes and comments are made in real-time, with input from each contributor. These sessions have exponentially sped up the time between exploration and decision-making around what ideas need to move to user validation.
Make smart compromises
When leadership’s product vision conflicts in some way with the on-the-ground realities of your product team, it’s your responsibility to try and achieve a best-fit compromise.
For example, let’s say your leadership team requests a redesign of your product by late summer’s release date, in advance of the fall semester. But your product team is focused on addressing features that need to be built, bugs to fix, refactoring that needs to happen, and stability issues to address. In other words, they are most concerned about the issues that impact their users’ experience of the existing product.
In this case, your job might be to work with leadership to figure out how to reprioritize tasks so that the redesign can be done in time — without abandoning high-priority UX needs. Otherwise, your compromise might leave users (as well as your product team) in the lurch.
Follow the process
Finally, remember to lean on your product development process as a way to surface issues and achieve alignment. If your product team’s concerns flow directly from the tried-and-true process of ideating, validating, prototyping, testing, and reporting, your leadership team is more likely to pivot appropriately in response.
In a perfect world, leadership would share their vision but recognize that plans may change depending on the team’s findings. In a less-than-ideal situation, you may still discover that presenting research findings is the most effective way to get your leadership team’s attention.
For example, let’s say that your leadership team wants to pursue a new set of features for your product. In theory, the feature sounds like a good idea. But over the course of actually testing the proposed feature with users, it may become clear that what they really want and need is something else entirely. The more you lean on your process, the less personal (and hopefully the less fraught) your team’s subsequent decisions become.
As a product leader, you are in a unique position to understand the distinct perspectives of your leadership teams, product teams, and users. This depth and width of understanding makes your own contributions invaluable to the development of user-centric products. By proactively cultivating communication, alignment, and compromise, you can lead the way to internal cohesion — and a product that your users love.