In my university days, a big part of my time was taken up playing basketball. We were competing on a serious level, with multiple training sessions a week plus a game on the weekend. During this time, I learned a lot about what it means to be part of a team.
It is the last year of my university and the season is about to begin. Any other season and I would be pretty nervous right now. How will we perform? Have we trained enough? Have the other teams gotten better? Are we too old or too young?
Not this time though. I am calm.
And so is everybody else. Not because our team changed. No star recruits. We have the same team as last year.
We are feeling this way because we are playing together extremely well. Everybody has their role and plays within it. We all know our strengths and weaknesses. And most importantly, we got a clear focus on our goal.
In other words: We are aligned. No one is on a private mission. There is only one objective, and everybody is 100% behind it. And it feels great!
Alignment In The Workplace
Fast forward 15 years and the concept of teamwork is on my mind once again. As a team lead, one of my main responsibilities is to ensure consistently high performance.
It took me a while to connect the great teamwork I experienced in basketball to building an extraordinary team at work. Everything made sense all of a sudden when reading an article about Elon Musk’s Vector analogy. Musk refers to people as vectors, who have both direction and magnitude. Depending on how well these vectors line up, they either add to or subtract from each other.
Reflecting on my basketball team in this light, I now understand that we were (close to) 100% aligned. The team was better than the sum of its individuals.
A high degree of alignment is obviously great, but where to start? We cannot just tell folks to be more aligned and magic happens. There are a lot of aspects at play, including:
- The size of the team and its people.
- A shared vision (see Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline).
- The company culture and values.
Just to name a few.
First Step: Measuring
There is another — potentially even the first — challenge in creating alignment: How do we know we are successful?
In rare cases — like my basketball team — you can feel it. The team is in a flow state. But what about everything in between? It would be great to identify the level of alignment within a team.
To get a handle on the situation in my team, I have come up with a simple set of questions:
- What does success look like for you personally (in your role)?
- What does success look like for the team?
- (What does success look like for the department?)
- What does success look like for the company?
For example, different responses from two engineers can be very insightful:
- One really wants to ship code. That is their measure of success.
- The other is customer focused. Building features that are most impactful for the user.
Similar insights can be gathered on the team, department and company level. Some answers might be similar — especially in a company with a strong vision and mission. In most cases though, you will be able to uncover some fundamental differences.
Analysing The Data
Once you have collected all the answers, it pays off analysing them on two dimensions:
- How aligned are the answers on each level?
- How do the levels align with each other?
It is crucial to understand how well the team is working together. And to find out we look at the alignment of the survey answers per level.
In general, the higher the alignment between team members, the better the chances of high performance. Everybody is working towards the same goal and is clear on how to achieve it.
On the other hand, you can be in an unfortunate situation with a high degree of misalignment. With lots of different agendas, the chances of a high performing team are slim.
Some questions to ask yourself:
Do the answers complement each other? For example, it is a great match if one person wants to teach, and another wants to learn.
Are there any obvious clashes? One answer might be defining team success as having a high monetary impact, another to build quality systems.
Is there a single outlier, or is the group generally going in different directions (as illustrated in the diagram)?
A team can be crazy aligned, but if it is running in the wrong direction it will not be very helpful.
We want to get a sense for where the group as a whole is heading, by analysing the hierarchy of answers.
A few things to look out for:
Do the answers to success as an individual line up with the team answers? It could be problematic if the team’s goal is to improve the user experience, and some folks are only interested in tweaking the search algorithm.
Do the answers to team success line up with the company level answers? In case company success is getting more people on the website, there might be an issue if the team’s success is to cut marketing spend.
Do the answers to company success match up with the actual company goals?
A high degree of alignment is crucial when building a great team. The first step is to understand what the landscape in your team looks like. Only then can you improve the situation.
Are the members of your team misaligned, misdirected or even both? You can find out by asking the four questions shared in this article.
Measuring alignment is one thing. Improving it is a challenge of another magnitude. I will cover that aspect in a future article.