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.