Spheres of Alignment

This is a post in my alignment series. See the introductory post Finding Alignment for more context.

I think, in practice, most of what managers do--and indeed all leadership--is about building alignment. The core concept, of alignment, having a shared understanding of the problem space and its context combined with relevant goals and objectives, and grasp of how the context contexts to these objectives. Alignment isn't just "agreement" or "understanding the solution," and really centers on this connection between context and goals. Alignment shows up in many different situations and interactions:

  • a small working group (2-4 people) who are working on building or developing something. The thing can be any kind of work product: a piece of software, documentation, a business process, a marketing campaign, a sales deal. When you have more than one person working on something, if they're not aligned, each person may be able to work on a piece of work as delegated or assigned, but lacks the ability to (reliably) continue to work on the next piece of work after finishing a narrow task, or be able to assess if a line of work is still germane to the goals as things develop. If we view people's roles in projects as machines, and they perform assigned tasks well, then alignment isn't super critical, but if you need people to make decisions and act upon them, then they have to be aligned, as a group otherwise the project runs a huge risk of stalling out as each contributor pulls in an opposite direction.
  • one person aligning with the rest of their team to understand how their background and personal goals contribute to and interact with the team's context and goals. Individuals all bring unique skills and interests and (hopefully) useful to teams, and teams (e.g. their leaders) need to be able to understand how to effectively use those skills and interests to support the team's goals. This happens over conversation and in the context of someones participation in a team over time, and doesn't need to take a lot of time on a regular basis, but cannot be entirely abandoned.
  • managers need to align their teams with the company's objectives. This takes the form of making sure that the projects that the team is working on (and will work on in the future,) support the organization and company's larger goals.
  • across all level each team needs to align with its peer teams and the organization that it belongs in. This is true in organizations with 30 people and 3-4 teams, and in organizations of 2000 people and dozens of teams.

Alignment is hierarchical, and largely the responsibility of leaders to monitor alignment above and below them, and understand if their teams or specific contributors are falling out of alignment. This doesn't necessarily mean that it's not participatory and discursive: individuals can impact the direction, goals, or alignment of their teams, but there must be well formed goals of the organization (that they can understand!) and they must be supported by their team in order to actualize in this dimension. Despite being hierarchical, and individuals and teams must align up building and maintaining alignment in all directions is actually the responsibility of leadership at all levels.

It's easy to frame this as "you must align with the goals sent from above," this couldn't be further from the truth. Some organizations function like this, but it's probably not healthy for anyone, because the kinds of alignment that it builds are fleeting and tactical. Teams and contributors do need to align with broader goals (up), but their job is not building alignment, it's building whatever their specialty is: attending to the organizational health and alignment is the concern of leadership whose work must center on building alignment. At almost every level, the alignment goes both ways: you work with leaders above you to align your own work and team, and work with the people you collaborate and mentor to build alignment.

When it works, and even though it takes a while, it helps teams and organizations work really well.

Signs of Alignment

This is a post in my alignment series. See the introductory post Finding Alignment for more context.

I really want to dig into some topics related to building alignment and figuring out when you're aligned as a contributor, or when the people you're working with are falling out of alignment with you and/or your team or organization, but I think it's worth it to start slow and chew on a big question: What it feels like when you and your team are well aligned, and why that's a good thing.

To my mind, when you have a foundation of alignment, and an understanding of what the business goals are for your organization, then it becomes really easy to work independently, because you know what's important, you know what needs to happen next and the people your working for/with can be confident that you'll be moving in the right direction, and don't need to do as much monitoring. Every so often, teams find this, and can really grind on it and deliver great features and products on the basis of this. It takes a long time (months!) for a team to gel like this, and sometimes teams don't quite get there.

This isn't to say that needing more guidance and wokring less independently means that you're unaligned just that you (or the people you're working with/for) are newer to the team, or there's been a change recently and everyone needs more touch points to build alignment. One of the risks of hiring people and growing teams that are really well aligned is that the change in team dynamic can throw off alignment, and I think this is one of the reasons that teams sometimes struggle to grow. In any case, while alignment is great and it doesn't happen for free, and it's fine for it to be a thing you're working on.

Alignment also reduces a lot of potentially contentious conversations and interactions: when you have alignment within a team or between teams you have a framework for prioritizing decisions: the most possible things that have the largest positive impact on the goals that you have are more important than... everything else. It all ends up being pretty simple. Sometimes you have to spend a bit of time on something that's locally lower priority if another team depends on it, or if you're helping someone learn something, but for the most part alignment helps you move toward the right direction.

When teams (and contributors) lack alignment, it's easy for low priority work to get done, or projects that don't end up supporting the business goals and so fail to find use (projects fail for other reasons, some of which are expected, so failed projects don't necessarily indicate miss-alignment). An unaligned team can end up competing with peer teams and internal collaborators. If some parts of a team or organization are well aligned and other's aren't, resentment and frustration can brew between teams. Basically, without alignment you can--if you're lucky--skate by with a little wasted effort, but often alignment deficits are a blight that can threaten a team's ability to be productive and make it really hard to retain great team members.

Not everything is an alignment problem: teams and projects fail for technical or logistical reasons. Sometimes conflicts emerge between collaborators who are well aligned but working on disconnected projects, or hold different concerns within a project. Alignment is a framework for understanding how organizations can move together and be productive particularly as they grow, and in this I hope that this has been helpful!

Finding Alignment

I keep making notes for writing a series of essays about alignment, the management concept, and it's somewhere in between a blog post and a book, so maybe I'll make it a series of blog posts. This is the introduction.

Alignment is this kind of abstract thing that happens when you have more than one entity (a person, working group, or team) working on a project (building or doing something). Leaving aside, for a moment, "entity" and "project," when efforts well aligned in that all of the effort is in persuit of the same goal and collaborators do work in support of each other. When efforts are out of alignment, collaborators can easily undermine eachother or persue work that doesn't support the larger goal.

Being well aligned sounds pretty great, you may think, "why wouldn't you always just want to be aligned?" And I think deep down people want to be aligned, but it's not obvious: as organizations grow and the problems that the organizations address become bigger (and are thus broken down into smaller parts,) it's easy for part of a team to fall out of alignment with the larger team. It's also the case that two parts of an organization may have needs or concerns that appear to be at odds with each other which can cause them to fall out of alignment.

Consider building a piece of software, as I often do: you often have a group of people who are building features and fixing bugs (engineers), and another group of people who support and interact with the people who are using the software (e.g. support, sale, or product management depending). The former group wants to build the product and make sure that it works, and the later group wants to get (potential) users using the software. While their goals are aligned in the broad sense, in practice there is often tension either between engineers who want things to be correct and complete before shipping them and product people who want to ship sooner or conversely between engineers who want to ship software early and product people who want to make sure the product actually works before it sees use. In short, while the two teams might be aligned on the larger goal, these teams often struggle to find alignment on narrower issues. The tension between stability and velocity is perennial and teams must work together to find alignment on this (and other issues.)

While teams and collaborators want to be in alignment, there are lots of reasons why a collaborator might fall out of alignment. The first and most common reason is that managers/leaders forget to build alignment: collaborators don't know what the larger goals are or don't know how the larger goals connect to the work that they're doing (or should be doing!) If there's redundancy in the organization that isn't addressed', collaborators might end up compeating against eachother or defending their spheres or fifedomes. This is exacerbated if two collaborators or groups have overlapping areas of responsibility. Also, when the businesses falter and leaders don't have a plan, collaborators can fall out of alignment to protect their own projects and jobs. It's also the case that collaborators interests change over time, and they may find themselves aligned in general, but not to the part of the project that they're working on. When identified, particularly, early, there are positive solutions to all these problems.

Alignment, when you have it feels great: the friction of collaboration often falls away because you can work independently while trusting that your collaborators are working toward the same goal. Strong alignment promotes prioritization, so you can be confident that you're always working on the parts of the problem that are the most important.

Saying "we should strive to be aligned," is not enough of a solution, and this series of posts that I'm cooking up addresses different angles of alignment: how to build it, how to tell when you're missing alignment, what alignment looks like between different kinds of collaborators (individuals, teams, groups, companies,) and how alignment interacts with other areas and concepts in organizational infrastructure (responsibility, delegation, trust, planning.)

Stay tuned!