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When scaling Agile/Scrum, we invariably run into the alignment vs. autonomy problem. In short, you cannot have autonomous, self-directing teams if they have no clue what direction they should go. Or, even shorter, alignment breeds autonomy.

But how do we create alignment? And what tools can we use to quickly evaluate whether or not what we want to do is part of the mission? Niel Nickolaisen, chief technology officer at OC Tanner, created the purpose alignment model. I use it with innovation labs in large enterprises to determine what aspects of innovation to keep, and what to leave to others.


If you struggle with aligning your development approaches with a marketing strategy, grab a whiteboard. To be successful in the marketplace, a product must solve a particular set of problems that customers are willing to pay to have solved. At the same time, the product needs to solve other basic problems as well as (or not worse than) the current solution.

Product teams need to know where they aim to “differentiate” and where they aim to be  “good enough.”

As the technology research enterprise Gartner, Inc. taught us, all comprehensible things can fit in a two by two diagram. In reality, the world is more complex, but if we frame our problem in two dimensions, at least the major decisions become obvious.


The Purpose Alignment Model

The Purpose Alignment Model

The Y-axis indicates where your product should have real market differentiation (high) or where differentiation is either not possible or simply not a focus of the organization (low). The X-axis asks what is the impact or “mission critical,” as Niels calls it.

It’s easy to see where your product is differentiating, not only in functionality but also in importance to the end user. If it’s not that important, or mission critical, you only need to be on parity with the solution you are substituting. Remember the first iPhone? It was not surpassing Nokia on call quality, durability or battery life, but it was equal, or good enough.

Some aspects may not be within your reach, but are mission critical to the customer. For those items, you can partner with someone to create an overall, differentiated offering. For example, we created several value-added reseller networks for our products, which allowed for local, native support, training and maintenance. Meanwhile, the product company focused energy on increasing differentiation.

Then there’s the who cares segment. These are the customers who really don’t care, and you won’t sell anything more if you build something there. (2×2 quadrants always include a “who cares” segment; it helps the product manager say “No!”)


To align the individual product owner/manager of a self-directing team, get him or her together with the team to decide what the model looks like. You probably won’t get this right the first time, but that’s okay. Build in feedback loops to test your assumptions. If you think a feature is mission critical, gather evidence.

Follow these steps to engage in purpose alignment:

  1. Present and explain the model.

  2. Identify the key problem you solve for your customer better than anyone else.

  3. Write a simple filtering statement or question that you can use to quickly evaluate future decisions and designs. Verify and check if any of the differentiating activities can be delivered best via a partnership. If so, you don’t have a partner. You have a competitor.

  4. Check if the remaining features are mission critical or differentiating and assign them to the appropriate boxes.

You can use the purpose alignment model for roadmap planning by performing a gap analysis on the differentiating, parity, and partnering activities. Your roadmap should explain how to fill the gaps.

You can also design projects, features, and functionality around purpose using the purpose alignment model. Design differentiating features and functionality to win the market. Design parity features to be good enough. Parity features are still mission critical, so don’t do them poorly. Simplify and standardize.

Caveat: Culture

If your team is engaged, they’ll want to solve all of your customer’s problems. We want to be the best in what we do, so leaving any aspect to partners or not doing it all doesn’t feel right. After all, everything we do is important, right? So it must be upper-right-corner stuff.

People have a natural tendency to make their work differentiating, and if you don’t emphasize and communicate the mission-critical nature of parity activities, people will resist the use of the model and its associated decision filters. Or worse, they’ll attempt to put everything in the differentiating category. So, if your workshop ends up with all the Post-its, or stickies, in the upper right corner, you didn’t explain or moderate effectively.

Caveat: Change
I like that the purpose alignment model can be done with stickies, which makes it easy to update. Hold regular meetings in cadence with your release scheme to make sure you’re not chasing the past. Also, be aware that partner opportunities come and go. Sometimes you need to adapt your strategy. What was once was a differentiating feature will become a parity feature over time, as the Kano model teaches us.
Caveat: Purpose is not Priority

Purpose identifies the design goals of a process, business rule, function, or feature. It does not define the sequence in which the work on that process, rule, function, or feature must occur. That being said, purpose can provide a framework for strategic and tactical planning.

Now, look at your product backlog and ask yourself the following three questions:

  1. Is your product differentiated in the market?

  2. Are you treating some features that should be at parity as differentiated?

  3. Are you working on features that are neither differentiated nor mission critical?

Want to learn more about using martial arts in product management? Go order the book from bol.com if you are in the Netherlands or Belgium or sign up to get the international edition.
The Product Manager's guide to Continuous Innovation


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