The 3 Unbroken Chains for Org Alignment For Design Teams

Simple frameworks to provide the entire organization some much-needed foundation and consistency.

Adam Fry-Pierce
11 min readOct 14, 2020

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As organizations grow, alignment becomes more difficult.
Even the best teams fall out of sync. This is because most companies are always changing.

In a given year, you’ll find most teams are falling into one of these categories:
- Doing more with less
- Doing more with more
- Doing less with less
- Doing less with more (Brooke’s Law)

Managers and individual contributors are always having to find ways to connect and align during shifting circumstances. And, as working environments get pressure tested, operations gaps become more visible.

Now that many teams are distributed, I asked thousands of design and product executives if this is a top problem area. It turns out, 8 of 10 challenges facing design executives could be fixed if their teams were more aligned.

80% of challenges facing design executives could be fixed if teams were more aligned.

However, creating alignment usually means investing in massive operations initiatives that take a long time to implement, and even longer to realize returns. Executives and teams need to address these issues here and now.

I asked a few colleagues to come together to answer a question: “Are there more lightweight managerial frameworks to help create organizational alignment, regardless of team size?”

We agreed on three throughline management frameworks that any manager can put to work today to calibrate with other business units, ensure a stronger manager<>teammate relationship, and even create a more consistent CX for your customers.

Enter: the 3 Unbroken Chains of Org Alignment

Implement these three frameworks and you’ll reduce significant organizational tension, improve relationships with your team, and deliver more value.

  • Unbroken Chain of Why (helping teams align to business goals)
  • Unbroken Chain of Story (helping teams align with their customers)
  • Unbroken Chain of Accountability (helping teams align on how the work gets done)

Let’s break these down to understand what they are and how they can help.

The first unbroken chain is the unbroken chain of why. This helps connect design to the business.

By Andrew La Monica & Emily Kapszukiewicz

There’s robust internet scholarship stating Design = Value. From McKinsey to McDonald’s and Alfa Romeo to Apple, design and product leaders know in their heart of hearts that what they do creates value. Not only in the customer experience but directly for the people who use their products.

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The challenge that design leaders face is articulating that value in a way that is aligned with our business partners. So many companies lack a clear connection between what Design does and the overall goals of the company. Like the bouncer at a club denying entry or Gandalf saying “You shall not pass,” without strategic alignment between Design and the enterprise, leaders are not going to get very far. The common pain point is a disconnect between outcomes. The output of the Design business unit (individual, team, function, & departmental levels) and the top objectives of the brand are misaligned.

In recent years a number of strategic frameworks have been presented to help solve this issue and maintain alignment, but many are cumbersome, are not tailored to what you need, or come with a consulting group to manage.

Early on, OKRs were helpful for alignment. Teams, departments, and business units align around objectives and key results to drive large groups of people in the same direction. OKRs create consistency about what’s important to the business and how individual work can ladder up to these top priorities. They also provide ways to measure the impact of the work from the ground up. But OKRs present their own problems, plus, they are a HUGE undertaking. It takes many cycles to dial them in, and it requires the entire business to subscribe to them. Like a Lego Millennium Falcon, OKRs take a long time to build and even longer to perfect.

Enter, the Unbroken Chain of Why

Though it has the unfortunate acronym of UCoW, it’s a truly powerful tool for strategic alignment that also establishes the team’s op model, working expectations, and clear operational priorities. It doesn’t require the entire business to subscribe to a large organizational framework, and literally, any leader can use it at a project, product, program, department, or company level.

The basic principle behind the UCoW is this:
Executive Leadership will give Design a parsec of runaway…as long as they know you’re 100% aligned to the top node of what the company is trying to do.

Executive leaders who are worth their salt know that having a good Design team is table-stakes, but adding the UCoW illustrates how you unlock sales, accelerate growth, and (when used effectively) add a competitive advantage. Empathy is key to meeting people where they are. And building on empathy, the Unbroken Chain of Why shows that you speak the language of business, you can accelerate the impact of the work, and you are creating strategic opportunities for the company.

You don’t have to wait until you get your Hogwarts letter — getting started is fairly straightforward.

Beginning at the CEO level or the top node of business, make a clear connection on how Design drives, supports, or adds economic value. And every level down, clarify how you are supporting that level and delivering outcomes. As you build the UcoW document, it gets blessed by the appropriate levels. By having clear alignment that is approved by the appropriate levels, it gives Design the autonomy to do what Design needs to do to be successful for the enterprise.

The Unbroken Chain of Why has two added bonuses. First, it forces a mindset shift with your team to be outcomes-focused as opposed to output-focused. Output is subjective and based on opinions of the loudest voice in the room, while outcomes are usually not argued. Secondly, and most importantly, it positions the Design business unit as “strategic” rather than simply “executional”.

So, let’s dive into the framework!

1. Exec Summary

  • Overview — Super short, think tweet-length
  • Pain Points (Of the brand)
  • Value Prop (The solution… not design related)
  • Opportunity (How Design addresses the solution)
    — ex: “Design’s ability to drive business value”

2. Brand’s top node of business, in detail w/ data.

3. Brand’s pain point, in detail w/ data

4. Competitive Landscape — though not a core “requirement” of a UCoW, it’s supporting evidence for your business case.

5. Solution to the pain point

6. Market Differentiation (if applicable)

7. How Design addresses this (now you can talk about Design!)

  • tangible value (economic)
  • intangible value (strategic & brand)

8. Op Model– this is about the implications for team structure, charter, and who are the DRIs (how the Design business unit is built to address this). Top-down approach is how design is an accelerator or adding direct economic value to the CEO level, C-suite level, VP level, and so fourth — or — the bottom-up approach of how the business unit is built to address every part of the customer journey or need.

9. Incoming Prioritization (the ‘get off my lawn’ page): The Design BU evaluates incoming work by these ‘five’ things. The first one should be any work that addresses the top node of business. The second should be things that add strategic value. The rest is up to you. Note: we strongly recommend adding “deprioritization”. Here’s an example: “time-consuming projects with little upside or highly political projects that will spend a lot of time on our backlog.”

10. Exec Conclusion: the takeaway is usually something like “Design is here to [insert your mission/charter/vision].”

What’s the punchline? Advance the business to advance design.

An Unbroken Chain of Why is the principle architecture for Design’s strategic value proposition.

By connecting the Design BU through all functional business levels to the top node of corporate strategy, the framework diagrams clear alignment and drivers that support the business strategy, highlights key strengths and accelerators, and illustrates how Design = Value.

By Salomé Mortazavi

Most industries are complicated. The technology landscape is no exception. And the thing that makes tech particularly tough, is just how fast things change. We constantly have to keep up with new companies and technologies that crop up and compete for our customers’ dollars and our users’ attention.

And while most product ideas or features are built to solve a problem, rarely are teams aligned to discuss the validity of the problems and debate their merits in relation to top business objectives. Even worse, entire disciplines aren’t part of the discussion until far too late in product development. There are many teams impacting the customer experience: design, engineering, product, marketing, customer support, community, sales, etc . What makes it even more tricky is these teams are siloed and don’t align around the same goals.

So, we’re left with three challenges:
1) The rate at which the tech landscape changes.
2) Organizational fragmentation and misalignment of teams.
3) Teams tend to focus on outputs (features), instead of outcomes (value for customer). To help lessen the burden of the challenges above, create an Unbroken Chain of Story (UCoS).

At the company I work for, VMware, we call this End-to-end stories (E2E stories). This framework helps to create a common language around the customer needs and make the entire customer ecosystem tangible for the team.

We’re then able to examine not only the pains of the hands-on user, but look into the forces that influence their choices and behavior, the organization’s stakeholders, and the competitive landscape.

Then, build this into a compelling story that shares the user journey: from how they discover and learn about the solution, to how they try, adopt/buy, use, and scale/grow.

This lens helps everyone move towards a North Star that ensures teams solve the right customer problems, and leverages the diverse lens of disciplines like marketing or sales, consulted at the appropriate point in product development.

While this framework is helpful for all digital experience teams, it’s particularly valuable for:

  • Engineering driven culture
  • Siloed teams
  • Rapid growth companies
  • Enterprise with many offerings
The DNA of stories: a live example from VMWare

Here’s a look at VMware’ UCoS: The End-to-end framework, made famous by Kevin McBride.

User story: The hands-on user pains, goals and jobs to be done
Customer story: The target customer, organization stakeholders’ goals and pains
Technical story: How our technology solution is serving user and customer needs and helping them achieve great outcomes
Market story: The outcomes we need to achieve as a business and how our proposed solution helps us achieve them

How does the UCOS fit with the bigger picture?

We use this rich ecosystem to examine and create an E2E Story around how the user Discovers and learns, Tries, Buys/Adopts, Uses, and Grows/Scales the solution across the organization.

Applying this framework across an entire organization can take time, of course. Try running an experiment with your next project by inviting the core disciplines involved with product development to create the E2E Story. These will guide the research and product work ahead. And better yet, it will get the team talking, which by itself will resolve so many of the organizational issues facing enterprise teams.

As you finish one experiment, try it again. Then again many more times. You’ll eventually create a culture where teams talk in a universal language, placing the customer at the center of the narrative.

Best of luck telling your stories.

The unbroken chain of accountability: connect teams.

By Adam Fry-Pierce

The unbroken chain of why (UCoW) helps teams strategically align, index, and prioritize their work in relation to what’s important to the business. The unbroken chain of stories (UCoS) helps teams index and prioritize their work in relation to what’s important to the customer, while providing teams a universal language and unified vision to rally around. But how do you operationalize these within the context of the work?

There are plenty of decision-making frameworks (e.g. DARCI, Urgent/Important Matrix, Brand Principles) and methods to bring the team together (e.g. agile and scrum rituals), but there’s long been debate about the governance of these models. How do you create a space where people can count on one another? Can you design a chain of accountability (UCoA), without creating a culture of micromanagement?

In research for this report, I spoke with dozens of teams. The organizations with high employee-to-employee trust/dependency had a few things in common. Some of the variables were to be expected (e.g. inspiring leadership) but there was something else, too. Most of these teams had transparent documentation about their goals, strategy, and operations. In some cases, these were published outside of company walls (like Gitlab).

This is the UCoA — It communicates the team’s identity, strategy, roadmap, rituals, and more. And as the team matures, the UCoA evolves.
Over the years, our team put together ours. Here’s an example.

The UCoA should include a team charter, strategic plan, roadmap, and documented rituals.

The thing I’ve realized is — UCoA is more than a document.
It’s an artifact.

It’s something we create rituals around.
It helps us maintain and reinforce our identity.
It’s a contract our team declares to the world saying “this is who we are and this is what we do.” It states what we stand for and what we’re focused on.

The UCoA allows anyone at any time to check-in on projects, or identify areas for partnership. It holds teams accountable, publicly.

Every team at every level of the organization should have a UCoA.
It helps create an informed culture of trust.

You probably have parts of this or a similar version at your organization. Is it working? How do you use it? Is it used at a team level, or perhaps the department or company level?

Tell me! Send me a link to your UCoA on Twitter.

use one or use all

These frameworks are built to be used together or independently. They’re flexible, too. Customize the ideas above to meet your needs.

Consider leveraging these frameworks as you ask yourself:

  • how is my team connecting to business goals? (UCoW)
  • how is my team connecting to the customer? (UCoS)
  • how is my team connecting & growing together? (UCoA)

Whichever ideas you use in your journey, remember: you are building systems for your teams to do their best work. Be intentional in how you and your teammates align.

If you’re curious to learn more about the Unbroken Chains of Alignment at a practical level, join the AMA on October 30th (Code = LIFTOFF) where you’ll have a chance to ask us your questions.

In parting, keep in mind…

“You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems… You should be far more concerned with your current trajectory than with your current results.”

- James Clear, Atomic Habits

Onward.

Written by Adam Fry-Pierce, Salome Mortazavi, and Andrew La Monica.

Go beyond the article — join the conversation.

This article is a reflection of the conversations and challenges happening in the Design Leadership Forum, a private community for product design leaders. All members are people leaders overseeing teams building digital products.

Our mission is to advance the practice of design leadership by fostering a community where the world’s best can learn from one another. We’re actively discussing shared challenges, debating leadership philosophy, and swapping management notes. Sometimes we discuss future trends, too. It’s a fun place.

If you’d like to join us, go to designleadership.com.

If you have questions, email us at designleadership@invisionapp.com.

thank you

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Adam Fry-Pierce
Design Leadership Forum

Empowering design and product leaders with connections + products. Creator of http://designleadership.com. DesignOps + product ethics is on my mind. Doodler.