I’m passionate about alignment. Yup, alignment. It might not be the sexiest topic in the startup world, but it’s essential to success. (It’s the reason I fell in love with Design Sprints, as they are a fantastic way to build alignment with disparate stakeholders.) Lack of focus may be the #1 killer of startups, but I believe that lack of alignment is why many organizations fail to ever realize their mission.
So, if you’re ready to align your team, I’ve assembled ten of my favorite methods. Start applying some of these and please share back what you discover!
1. Define a Shared Vocabulary
Here’s where I suggest you start: make sure everyone in your company is speaking the same “language.” When individuals or teams use different terms or define things in contradictory ways, some (if not all) of your efforts will be thwarted. That’s why I recommend establishing a shared dictionary or lexicon.
The level of effort to create your dictionary will vary depending on the size and age of the company. Begin by meeting with each team and reviewing their standard reports, metrics, and assets. Identify terms that mean different things for different groups and look for groups that use a variety of words for the same concept. Document and socialize these differences. Work toward creating documentation of your organization’s official terms and definitions, whether through a PDF or internal website.
2. Use the “Note & Vote” Technique
The Note & Vote activity is my favorite take-away from the Google Design Sprint. It’s a great tool to drop into any workshop agenda, or even a staff meeting. What I love about this tool is that it combines focused individual work, as well as the power of collective wisdom.
Here’s how it works in a nutshell: start by having the team individually generate ideas, challenges, or solutions. Then, everyone shares their favorite ideas with the group. Once everyone has shared, each person votes for their top concepts or ideas. (Depending on the size of the team and your time constraints, adjust the amount of individual work time, the number of favorites shared, and the number of votes per person.) This method is a great way to avoid groupthink, give everyone a voice, and come up with new, “out of the box” ideas.
3. Leverage Tools for Visibility
Without visibility, teams with the best of intentions may think they’re aligned, only to realize that they have drifted apart. There are many tools for creating visibility. Kanban and metrics dashboards are my two go-to strategies for creating visibility. For Kanban, I typically recommend Trello or Jira. While Trello is simple and easy to get started, Jira has much better support for software projects. For metrics, there a gazillion options these days, but I’ve been enjoying Klipfolio, and Looker is also quite nice.
Regardless of which tool you have, create a culture of actually using the tool. For example, make sure your standups and status meetings revolve around the Kanban board. Whenever a status changes, update your Kanban immediately. Review and analyze your metrics dashboards daily, if not more frequently.
4. Schedule One-On-Ones
If you aren’t doing one-on-ones, I’ve got to break it to you: you must start. There is no excuse—not even a small team! Managers, and especially executives, have the luxury of seeing the forest for the trees. One-on-ones are one of the most important tools you have to identify problems, opportunities, and see across your team to create alignment. They allow you to understand what motivates your team, their fears and concerns, and their challenges. So, if someone reports to you, I suggest weekly one-on-ones. I know everyone is busy, but I don’t recommend doing them bi-weekly. Schedule them for every week and commit!
5. Spend Two Hours Defining Your Purpose
I’m a big fan of Liberating Structures, which is a set of 33 tools and techniques that can be used to align groups. I highly recommend checking out all of their activities, but I will outline two of my favorite LS techniques here and in the next recommendation.
Purpose-to-Practice (P2P) is designed to help your group “design the five essential elements for a resilient and enduring initiative” in just two hours. By following the ingredients and agenda for this structured working session, your group will ultimately answer five important questions: “What rules must we absolutely obey to succeed in achieving our purpose?”, “Who can contribute to achieving our purpose and must be included?”, “How must we organize (both macro- and microstructures) and distribute control to achieve our purpose?”, and “What are we going to do? What will we offer to our users/clients and how will we do it?”
This is a helpful activity at the start of a startup journey or when you need to get your team back on the same page about your mission, customers, and strategies.
6. Encouraging People to Ask for Help
Another Liberating Structures activity that I find very effective for alignment is called “What I Need From You” (WINFY). This method only takes about an hour and spurs people to ask their colleagues for the things they need to be successful. In this activity, individuals make a list of what they want from others, share it, and then receive an unambiguous response of: yes, no, I will try, or whatever. This activity creates a safe space where teams can find clarity about roles, needs, and expectations.
What I like about WINFY is that it breaks down our assumptions about each other. We find out what people on the team are wanting, but not getting, or, conversely, when someone is making incorrect assumptions about what others want from them. This framework encourages collaboration among peers and is especially effective for executives who are often downward-focused, when they need to be horizontally-focused.
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7. Ensure Your Meetings are Inclusive
If you want to have an aligned team, you can’t have meetings where only a few people speak and share. Follow some simple rules to make sure that your meetings are inclusive spaces where everyone feels empowered to contribute. First, prepare by having a clear goal and agenda; this will keep everyone on track. If you have people that tend to monopolize discussions, you might want to initiate the “Note & Vote” activity mentioned above; it’s a good way to get more people involved in conversation and decision-making.
Another thing to be aware of, especially as a leader, is the tone of your meetings. Ask yourself: How is criticism and disagreement handled? Do individuals say “Yes, and…” or just shut each other down? Are ideas attributed and recognized or ignored? Take note of the tenor of your meetings and work to correct any bad habits before they become too ingrained in the culture.
8. Repetition. Repetition.
In almost everything in life, consistency is key. I think management needs to be particularly aware of this in terms of communicating with your team. You can’t assume that stating your strategy in one standup will be enough to institute new thinking and drive lasting change.
I once heard a CEO explain the same thing five times in one day to different groups. It didn’t matter if he was addressing the execs, the entire company, an intern, or the board. He patiently and consistently explained the same thing, with the same language. The message stayed the same. This kind of redundancy is monotonous and annoying, but it is crucial if you want to keep your team aligned. As an organization grows, the challenge is insuring consistency as you scale beyond your ability to do it in person.
9. Schedule a “Roles & Coffee” Meeting
Roles & Coffee is a more surgical tool that is useful when you have two employees who are having trouble working together. Often, when two team members are struggling to get along, it is due to weak assumptions about roles, responsibilities, and capabilities.
Ask them to find time to have a coffee together. When they sit down, they should take turns describing the role and responsibilities of the other person. By simply asking each other, “What do you think I do?”, they’ll be able to clarify the misconceptions that are standing in their way. While there are times when behavioral issues are at play, I’ve found this activity can clear the air for most situations.
10. Don’t Forget Postmortems
When major projects or initiatives end, teams are often ready to move on and forget all about what they just launched. They are onto the next thing or just plain exhausted. But, it’s crucial to schedule postmortems after important projects to reflect and talk through lessons learned.
During your retrospective, let team members share what worked well so it can be celebrated and repeated next time. Also, find out what didn’t go well and try to get to the root cause. I find that the classic trick of asking WHY? five times helps you dig into what went wrong. Work to foster a culture where it is ok to mess up, fail, and ultimately grow from hiccups and mistakes.
I hope you are able achieve more alignment by applying a few of these methods. With more alignment, your team will be happier, you’ll get more done, and you will increase the odds that you are doing the right things. All of this naturally adds up to a healthier, more resilient organization.