Deciding if Alignment Personas are right for you

“If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”  Attributed to Abraham Maslow, 1966

Alignment personas don’t help solve every problem in every company. And it’s not always possible to wrangle senior stakeholders from you position below them in the organizational structure. Do some honest thinking with yourself (and the people interested in helping you with the persona effort) to evaluate which project, at which level, you choose, especially for your first few alignment persona efforts.

In very small companies and startups

Many startups and small companies try to have relatively flat organizational structures for as long as possible. If you are part of a small company, it may be possible to create alignment personas for the whole company or the primary project, especially in these situations:

  • It’s very early, and the company is still figuring out how to translate the ‘big ideas’ into buildable product(s)
  • You are part of the senior level team (but haven’t adamantly taken sides in major debates; if you have, it will be difficult for the rest of the team to trust that you are open to all opinions)
  • The company has existed for a while but is struggling with focus or a project.

In larger companies with several layers of managers

In larger companies it’s best to start small and stay under the radar. It’s easy to imagine how alignment personas could be game-changing in larger companies at all levels (especially at the senior executive and strategic level). However, it’s a very bad idea to try your first alignment persona efforts in a very visible way. Instead, set a goal to work your way up and inspire a ‘pull’ rather than try to push the value of alignment personas; in other words, set yourself up for success in your first smaller alignment persona efforts, show the results to other teams, and inspire them to want to do alignment personas for their own projects.

Pick a small project, preferably one you are directly involved in.  Try to steer clear of the big political issues in your organization or company. Set reasonable, practical, well-defined goals to set yourself and the alignment personas effort up for success.

If you read this and are still tempted to try doing alignment personas at a high level in a mid-size or large organization or company, beware. This is not only dangerous, it’s also likely to fail and to sour everyone on the idea of personas (if they aren’t already soured from previous, more traditional persona efforts). You simply can’t herd executives into alignment from several layers below them in an organization; it’s politically and socially impossible for all sorts of reasons that I will explain in future posts or articles. As an experienced, respected consultant, even I have challenges wrangling executive teams, and I can come in and show them screens full of logos of previous clients (and loudly plunk two big books on the tables in front of them) to establish my authority.

In companies that already have, or have had, personas

Many companies and many colleagues have tried personas in the past. Personas were all the rage when Alan Cooper introduced the term and the concept in his 1999 book The Inmates Are Running the Asylum: Why High Tech Products Drive Us Crazy and How to Restore the Sanity. You are going to have to deal with ghosts of past personas when you embark on your alignment personas project.

If your current team or company has tried personas in the past, they either didn’t work at all or probably didn’t have as much impact as hoped. This is why I recommend asking the workshop participants if they have worked with personas before, and, if so, how it went.

I always emphasize that the alignment persona process is completely different than the traditional personal process, as are the resulting deliverables and their impact. You may not need to dive into detail, but if you do find that you are encountering a lot of resistance to your alignment persona work because of past persona failures, refer to How are Alignment Personas Different. (coming soon)

I also recommend you read my article What to do when you are asked to “refresh the personas” on Medium.

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