Leadership Expectations vs. Product Team Reality: The Product-Process Gap

McKinsey’s Product Operating Model Index recently found that the biggest gap in capabilities between the top and bottom-performing companies is in their product management practices, cross-team collaboration, and backlog prioritization. This is what I call the Product-Process Gap (PPG). It’s the gap between a company’s potential or desired use of product management practices, approaches, and frameworks with reality. 

And it’s a problem worth paying attention to. Companies that fix the Product-Process Gap deliver;

  • 60% greater total returns to shareholders
  • 16% higher operating margins
  • 38% higher customer engagement 
  • 37% higher brand awareness.

How do product leaders see the Product-Process Gap playing out across the industry in real businesses? We asked six product leaders to share where they see the biggest gaps between leadership expectations and the reality faced by the product teams. By identifying these gaps, we can understand how to close them and improve working practices. So, let’s dive in. 

Support for continuous improvement of product processes and systems

Expectation: Product teams should focus on delivering great work. 

Reality: Product teams don’t have time or resources to improve how they do product work. 

It’s not only leadership that wants product teams to deliver great work—product folk want to as well, but they need the time and resources away from their “core” responsibilities to improve processes and approaches. 

Take product experimentation, for example. Leaders expect product decisions to be made using A/B tests. And while data-driven decision-making is critical for today’s product teams, they are often left to shoehorn new experimentation processes into existing (in motion) workflows with tools that aren’t fit for purpose. This is already a big ask, but it’s often on top of PMs’ existing workloads. Expecting all product teams to run experiments without transparent processes and guardrails to ensure they conduct experiments properly is a recipe for disaster. Businesses can lose revenue and user trust if tests are run incorrectly, and significant product decisions might be based on unreliable data. 

Without dedicated and frequent time and resources to review how product teams approach product management, work becomes inefficient and ineffective. Chris explains this in more detail, 

“Expectations of how quickly teams can deliver have never been as high as it is today. However, very rarely do teams get the opportunity to take the time to deeply consider ‘how they do product.’ How they work together, how they collaborate and communicate with the organisation, how they understand their customers, and how to drive business impact. That’s not to mention the overall missing elements of experimental and iterative learning practices throughout both product discovery and delivery.

Product teams that can deliver efficiently may still struggle to be truly effective. Their decision-making at every stage of the product development life cycle has to be of the highest quality. Leaders in the organisation need to empower their people’s growth mindsets and support their continuous improvement practices. By helping them to understand the core principles of product thinking, they can focus their efforts on areas of improvement that will have a material impact on the business.”

Chris Compston, Product Enablement & Ops Consultant 

If working on product processes and systems is so impactful, why aren’t leadership teams prioritizing it? Antonia has an idea why, 

“Oftentimes, organisations don’t actively invest in creating the right conditions for their product teams to thrive. 

Even the most experienced Product Managers will flounder if they don’t have access to the right tools, knowledge, data, and systems to do meaningful work! 

The more time and effort individual PMs need to spend creating and maintaining these things, the less time they spend creating value for the users and the business. So-called ‘glue work’ like this is often invisible to boot, which creates the perfect storm of overburdened PMs and executives who are left scratching their heads at why so little is getting done.

Antonia Landi, Product Operations Consultant & Coach

How to close the gap

Product managers can highlight the need for dedicated time and resources to work on product processes by recording the time they are already spending on such activities. Additionally, they can highlight issues within existing processes that prevent them from achieving company goals. Advocating for a full-time ProductOps colleague whose remit is to improve product processes can also be a solution in larger organizations.  

Here’s a step-by-step guide to identifying and implementing improvement to your product processes. Note that this should be a continuous exercise, not a one-and-done activity. 

  1. Map out current processes and workflows. Do they represent best practices? Do they guide your teams to do their best work? Do they produce valid, quality outputs that impact the business? 
  2. Identify where processes, tools, and workflows can be streamlined, improved, or updated to better support teams, eliminate wasted effort, and create opportunities for collaboration. Note any “workarounds” used by individuals, as these tend to highlight flaws in the process. 
  3. If you haven’t already, create systems that allow managers to oversee the process and its use across teams.
  4. Create rules and guardrails to ensure product processes are followed, e.g., teams aren’t skipping backlog prioritization. 
  5. Train and explain any new systems, approaches, or workflows, giving teams time to ask questions. 
  6. Implement automated health checks to measure whether individuals follow the processes or need additional training or support.

Example of a health score for the product experimentation process

Clearer goals and accountability that encourage collaboration

Expectation: All teams work together to achieve the company goals and North Star metrics.

Reality: Teams lack visibility, accountability, and goals that encourage collaboration. 

Company goals should dictate the direction and priority of work across the business. But to be effective, teams and individuals need specific goals and metrics, which; 

  • They can personally impact/influence
  • They can see and refer to often 
  • They are held accountable for
  • Are connected to and impact the overarching North Star metric.

Without the above, it’s easy for teams to get off course and focus on things that aren’t important. 

“One of the biggest gaps I see in companies is a lack of a common and single North Star metric (or whatever name of framework you call it) that works as a leading indicator and helps define the focus for the entire company, together with a clear goal tree (with input metrics and daily driver metrics) where individual teams/areas can identify themselves how they can help and the interaction effects with others.

This lack of focus, visibility, and accountability is what generates the struggle for different teams/areas to move in the same direction, to be able to be faster and better at understanding customer problems and how they can adapt their products better for users but also better for the company goals. Otherwise, you have a great product team trying to promote discovery & experimentation, but you don’t have the support from marketing or operations because they are pursuing different goals; you will not succeed as a whole.” 

Luis Trindade, Principal Product Manager – Experimentation at Farfetch

Leaders need to put real consideration into the goals and metrics they set. Where management layers exist, each level should ensure their team goals connect back up to the layer above. Managers must also ensure goals don’t introduce conflict or competing priorities among teams, as Aditi discusses,

“In my opinion, the biggest gap is the failure to lead by example by product leaders from the top down. Product leaders need to consistently communicate the strategy and ensure that those at the next level down are held accountable for translating it into actionable goals for their teams. If the strategy is not broken down into actionable team goals, then the overall product vision is hard to realize.

Another challenge is cross-functional collaboration, the lack of effective communication channels and conflicting priorities between product teams often leads to misalignment and delays in delivery. Hence, alignment between product leaders on a common vision and strategy goes a long way in making sure teams on the ground are headed in the right direction.” 

Aditi Gupta, Senior Product Manager at Thomson Reuters

How to close the gap

There are a few different tools and techniques leaders can use to introduce clearer goals and accountability, which also encourage collaboration;

  1. Goal tree mapping. This exercise helps visualize all metrics and goals across the organization. It allows leaders to spot opportunities for better team alignment and see goals or metrics that conflict with others. When used correctly, this framework should ensure that all individuals and teams create goals that roll up to impact the overarching North Star metric. 
  2. Accountability: Each goal and metric on the goal tree should have a name against it. Leaders must work with their teams to ensure everyone knows who’s accountable for what.
  3. Visibility: Product managers should be able to see what goal each piece of work is connected to as it moves through research, discovery, prioritization, experimentation, and delivery. Often, this information is only visible after the fact in reports and dashboards, but here, it’s too late to call out work in progress that isn’t connected to goals. Use tags or structure your internal processes and workflow to show the overarching goal or metrics toward which each piece of work contributes.
  4. Review the outcomes: When we set goals, it can sometimes be hard to envision what teams will do to achieve them. For this reason, you need toensure goals encourage the right behavior and outcomes. Did the work achieve the goal or contribute to the overarching business success? Or did it incentivize teams to work on things that didn’t impact the company? Or, worse, incentivize the wrong work? Use this review to tweak goals. Tip: Don’t wait an entire quarter to change goals or metrics if they aren’t working. 

Better processes for backlog prioritization 

Expectation: Product teams focus on doing the highest-value work

Reality: Product teams focus on outputs 

As I mentioned above, the goals we set incentivize a whole range of activities and behaviors across the business; one potential perverse incentive that creeps into teams is metrics that encourage velocity or the number of shipped features rather than outcomes. The first step to resolving this is covered above in the goal setting. The second is to work on your prioritization process. Knowing what we should (and shouldn’t) work on is crucial. As Anabela explains,  

“Product teams often prioritize agility and high throughput, but sometimes we overlook the importance of outcomes over outputs. Why we build new features matters more than how many we build. As product leaders, our main responsibility is to leverage our products to drive business outcomes. To achieve our goals, we must prioritize ruthlessly. It is crucial to focus on what matters and say no to distractions.Deciding what we don’t do is as crucial as what we do.”

Anabela Cesário, Executive Vice President of Product Management at OutSystems 

How to close the gap

  1. Decide on a prioritization framework. Many different frameworks exist (PIE, ICE, PXL, etc.). The key is to pick one that best fits your business needs and surfaces work connected to your overall goals. If the existing frameworks aren’t right, you can customize them or adjust the weighting to help the highest-potential ideas rise to the top. For example, you might want to prioritize work that could directly impact a specific metric or was based on user research or data insights. 
  2. Ensure your prioritization framework is as objective as possible. Wherever possible, change the wording or criteria within your prioritization framework to be objective and easy to answer.
  3. Set guardrails and governance to ensure the prioritization framework is followed. Guardrails help protect product teams. They ensure stakeholders can’t bypass the process and help product teams defend why specific ideas are prioritized.
  4. Regularly review what’s in the backlog: Backlog grooming should be done periodically to archive ideas that cause distraction and haven’t met the prioritization threshold. Make sure to archive rather than delete to avoid re-prioritizing already evaluated ideas. 

Check out this blog post, How to effectively manage your backlog of ideas, for a detailed guide on the above. 

Access to the right data & tools to make good decisions

Expectation: Product teams should make their own decisions 

Reality: Product teams don’t have access to the right tools or data to make good decisions 

Delegating decision-making is the only way to run an effective business, and as companies scale, it becomes even more crucial. Without delegation, teams have to wait for the mighty decision-maker to pass down their judgment, creating bottlenecks and wasting time (not to mention demoralizing). Most leaders recognize this and have relinquished decision-making responsibilities to their teams. But there’s a snag, as Randy explains; 

“Leadership, as a culture, remains stubbornly idealistic —despite all evidence to the contrary, it remains naively optimistic in future projections. It clings to the illusion of predictability and control, of budgets and roadmaps that accurately forecast a rosy future, and of metrics that diagnose specific problems rather than highlight the need for investigation. But the issues I see are usually bigger than that – they’re environmental.

Leadership compounds the issue by delegating decision-making to teams who lack the perspective needed to make good decisions. Their understanding of the strategy is incomplete or out of date; communication and metrics live in silos, and regular access to customers and users may be impeded. We need to continue to find more effective ways to work together.”

Randy Silver, Coach, Community Builder & Consultant at Out of Owls

We can’t expect teams to make good decisions without providing the necessary data and information. 

How to close the gap 

  1. Close the goal and prioritization gaps. As mentioned above, these two gaps (when closed) provide a guided process for individuals to make good decisions about what to work on and why. 
  2. Review data and research access. Plan regular user research sessions and ensure the insights and findings are communicated in an easy-to-consume manner across all product teams. 
  3. Create a knowledge base of past decisions. Past product experiments contain a wealth of information that can help guide future decisions. Ensure this information is easy to search with a global taxonomy. 
  4. Offer guided processes and playbooks about experimentation. A/B testing is the gold standard for data-backed decisions. Many companies talk about data-driven decision-making but fail to implement the necessary processes, checks, and guardrails to ensure valid and reliable test data. To fix this, leaders need workflow tools that guide individuals through the process and prevent poor practices, such as HARK-ing.


The Product-Process Gap represents a significant opportunity for improvement for product leaders who choose to tackle it. 

4 Product-Process Gaps that need to be closed

  1. Support for continuous improvement of product processes and systems
  • Provide teams with dedicated time and resources to work on ‘how they do product management,’ by following the below steps;
    • Map out current processes and workflows.
    • Identify where processes, tools, and workflows can be streamlined. 
    • Work out how these workflows integrate with our teams
    • Create rules, guardrails, and visibility to ensure processes are followed. 
    • Train product teams on any new systems, approaches, or workflows.
    • Implement automated health checks to identify opportunities for improvement.
    • Periodically review the above.
  1. Clearer goals and accountability that encourage collaboration
  • Conduct a goal tree mapping exercise. 
  • Ensure each goal and metric on the goal tree has a name against it. 
  • Review the outcomes to check if work impacted the goals. 
  • Review and tweak.
  1. Better processes for backlog prioritization
    • Set a prioritization framework. 
    • Ensure it’s as objective as possible. 
    • Set guardrails and governance to ensure the prioritization framework is followed. 
    • Regularly review what’s in the backlog.
  1. Access to the right data & tools to make good decisions
    • Close the goal and prioritization gaps.
    • Review data and research access.
    • Create a knowledge base of past decisions. 
    • Offer guided processes and playbooks about experimentation.

A big thank you to the product leaders who shared their insights for this article; 

Chris Compston, Product Enablement & Ops Consultant 

Antonia Landi, Product Operations Consultant & Coach

Luis Trindade, Principal Product Manager – Experimentation at Farfetch

Aditi Gupta, Senior Product Manager at Thomson Reuters

Anabela Cesário, Executive Vice President of Product Management at OutSystems 

Randy Silver, Coach, Community Builder & Consultant at Out of Owls

If you’d like to find out how Effective Experiments can help your team close the Product-Process Gap, email me at ma****@ef******************.com

Manuel da Costa

A passionate evangelist of all things experimentation, Manuel da Costa founded Effective Experiments to help organizations to make experimentation a core part of every business. On the blog, he talks about experimentation as a driver of innovation, experimentation program management, change management and building better practices in A/B testing.