Alignment—or the state of being poised and committed to acting together and in concert—is ultimately what makes a difference to the performance of any team. It opens the door to collaboration, co-ordination of efforts and effective communication. But how do you get alignment?
A team of people can create being aligned by declaration. That might sound like: “We each declare that we will act together to advance our business. Our practice is to end every weekly meeting with promises to take specific actions, and we will begin every weekly meeting by completing promises from past meetings to everyone’s satisfaction.”
So what comes next?
1. Complete the past
Every member of every team has a set of experiences that they bring to the party. They have experiences with projects or operations, with other people on the team, with the company, with vendors and consultants, with various methods and approaches. Their experiences will range from fixed ideas about what works (“We had better do it this way”) to fixed ideas about what does not work (“Never get Joe involved; he always complicates things and is impossible to work with”). Experience is valuable and at the same time, the fixed points of view that all of us have, derived from the past, will limit our ability to work effectively with others, since no two people have exactly the same set of fixed ideas. A conversation to get these perspectives on the table can go a long way towards having freedom to work together. What has such a conversation work well is to hear each person’s comments fully without agreeing or disagreeing – simply hearing what they say as the view that they have. We call it completing the past because, once expressed to one’s teammates, the experiences of the past can be put in the past and leave more space for collaboration and creativity in the present.
2. Create a picture of success at a point in time in the future
Alignment can be viewed as a compass for individuals and teams. If we are all oriented toward the same destination, we naturally work more effectively together. Most teams have some notion of the results they are out to produce, and often have not developed a specific enough picture of future success to be oriented in the same direction. This leads to debates and struggles over which path to take. A clear picture of a future state – what was accomplished, what obstacles did we overcome, what pathways led to success, how did we work together? – is a powerful force for alignment. This is most powerfully done from the perspective of standing in the future as if it has already been accomplished. Keep asking the question: “What does that look like?” until everyone on the team can really share an experience of seeing success and the road to it.
3. Design and implement structures to build and sustain alignment
Creating ways to keep the conversation for alignment alive and present are critical for sustaining alignment over time. We call them structures because they are material – like documents, agenda items and schedules. Some that have worked for many teams:
- Revisit the picture of success periodically (every two weeks or every month). Check in with team members to see if it is still clear and what else they may add to it.
- Have a standing agenda item to check the state of alignment. Are tensions building anywhere? Are debates or disagreements slowing progress? Is communication effective? Giving everyone a chance to answer these questions and resolve any alignment issues strengthens the team
- When problems arise, discuss them as a team. Don’t leave any team member on their own.
Completing the past, creating a picture of future success and implementing structures for alignment take time, energy and creativity. When viewed as a set of discretionary or ancillary activities, these critical productivity tools often get shunted aside. A much more powerful approach is to have the whole team enrolled in the power and value of alignment that way you’re far more likely to sustain effort.