Everyone pulling in the same direction
Everyone pulling in the same direction

The A-B-C’s of Team Alignment

It’s the end of the year, after 4 pm in the afternoon and the project is winding down.  We’re sitting outside drinking a glass of wine, discussing the successes and failures of the past year in an informal retrospective. “Why, if we have such good developers with so much experience, are we struggling so much?  Why do we seem incapable of producing this kind of project?”  The question comes with honest curiosity.  An inability to comprehend the equivalent of why bad things happen to good people. Little do they realise the problem stems from a lack of team alignment.

I don’t have the courage to give my honest opinion – namely too much ego – knowing they will not receive it well.  I cowardly refrain from naming the elephant in the room and focus on the less vulnerable aspects of the project.

I’ve only been there a few months and only worked on this one project, but the pattern that emerges after numerous conversations about other projects in the company is clear.  Awesome, skilled and experienced developers building relatively easy projects.  Not exactly rocket science, yet, what should take hours carry on for weeks.  As the timelines shorten while the to-dos grow, the customer becomes increasingly unhappy.

Everyone in the team is just so nice and trying so hard.  They’re doing the best they can.  I don’t want to hold up the mirror for them to see their dysfunction any more or any earlier than what is necessary.  They’ve already made paradigm shifts in behavior since I started. It’s time to focus on successes, not failures if they’re to finish this project successfully.

So I keep quiet, knowing they won’t be able to hear me just yet, but here is the advice I would offer.

The reason for failure

Companies and teams don’t fail because they have ‘bad’ or unskilled people working there.  Companies and teams also don’t fail because they have a lack of resources, or they have an inferior product, or because they don’t have good customers. They fail because they lack team alignment.

Rewind three months.

I walk into a team with a team lead – a very clever and talented architect who is unable to communicate his vision or message to the team, rendering his knowledge mostly useless; the engineering lead, technically very talented and exceptionally likeable but used to working on small 1 – 3 man projects and not used to leading large teams; and some of the most experienced developers in the company with technical capabilities that most companies would be envious of.  Technical talent in abundance.

The project, however, is struggling badly. It literally feels as if development is coming to a grinding halt, even though the team is working overtime most days to try and catch up on a growing backlog.  Each time one piece of code is merged to add a new feature, ten or more new issues arise, often introducing regression to features that previously worked.

One step forward, ten steps back.

So why, with all this technical talent, is the project not progressing as planned?

The answer is simple, yet an inconvenient truth.  Too many people thinking they know what they’re doing and don’t think they need a leader or coach.  In other words, a team of people all pulling in different directions with their own preferences and priorities, disregarding the project goals and priorities. Each person works on what they think is most important or right. No-one willing to compromise, feeling their solution is the better one.  Even if they say they do.

The A-B-C of team success

For a team to succeed there needs to be three foundational things in place.  It’s not enough to be technically skilled alone.  It’s more important to contribute to the team’s success than to be clever or talented.

Here are the three fundamental requirements for team alignment and success:

A is for Awareness

Essentially, when all the team members work towards the same goal at the same time, they are aligned.  With awareness of what the vision is, people can support each other to achieve their mutual goal.

Easier said than done.

How do you get a bunch of intelligent, independent adults pulling in the same direction?  How do you align a team when they don’t think they need help?

Awareness is the first step to any form of change and it is no different to achieve team alignment.  The first aspect of team alignment is to know what your ultimate goal is and that it requires a whole team to deliver.  A great developer is good.  A good developer and a good tester and a good designer are ten times better!

It’s important for people to realize they are one part in a bigger engine, all equally important. One person is never better than the other.  One skill not more valuable than the next.  Each person is as necessary as the next to produce a complete product.

Each person in the team is unique and brings a unique perspective to the team. Or as Marie Forleo would put it, that special gift that only you have.  In a team setting it is important for teams to be aware of their own and their team’s strengths and weaknesses as it is important to be clear on the vision.

B is for Boundaries

Knowing the strengths and weaknesses of a team is as important as explicitly setting clear boundaries. It is often the lack of boundaries that causes issues.  It results in different people working on the same piece of code, or one person implementing a design in one way while someone else implements it in a different way, resulting in a conflict between the two solutions, rendering both error-prone or even useless.

Who is responsible for deciding on the priorities?  Who is responsible for deciding how the design should look like and what it should do?  Also, who is responsible for deciding on the architecture?  Who is responsible for making it look awesome?

In a restaurant, the waiters stay out of the kitchen and the chef stay off the floor.  It’s both a sign of respect and efficient.  When everyone knows what’s expected from them and who to ask when a problem arises, they can focus on building their puzzle piece.

Even if you’re good at more than one part of the workflow, if someone else is the team elected responsible person for that specific area, put your own wants aside and respect the team roles.

C is for Conversations

Finally, and most importantly to align teams, is the need for regular conversations.  Even when there are no boundaries or awareness, having conversations will eventually and inevitably uncover and resolve it.

Conversation is the medicine for team culture.

It’s in the conversations that people get to know each other.  It’s in the conversations that they gain more insight into the other’s perspectives.  It is in the conversations that problems are solved and goals achieved.

If you want to change the culture, you have to change the conversations*.

For example, when the leader uses “we” when he wants someone to take ownership when assigning work, probably no-one will act. Change the “we” to “you” or even better “who?” and see how no action quickly transforms into action and a culture of responsibility.

One word.  That’s all it takes to change a culture.

Similarly, when conversations are focused around the problem, the culture is probably one of blame.  Change the conversations to focus on solutions and the culture transforms into a problem solving one.

The two most crucial tools to transform cultures using conversation are firstly to have regular, short, face-to-face conversations and secondly, to rephrase issues into questions.  Rather than saying “We have this big problem”, ask “How might we resolve this problem?” or “Who else has had this problem and how did they resolve it?”.  Rather than saying “We need to build this next”, try “Who can build this?”

Teachings from Africa

The western world is only now discovering the value of conversations, with Robert Marshak’s dialogic organizational development and talk therapy becoming increasingly popular.  African culture has always known this.

African culture focuses on relationships first.  It is considered rude to jump straight to the point in the conversation.  Ideally, first, you eat together and talk about the weather and family and other seemingly insignificant things before you engage in a business transaction.  Typically, a 2-hour meeting will take a whole day, with the majority of the time spent on building relationships.

I initially met this business culture with resistance.  How could it possibly be more productive to waste a whole day for just one project meeting?

The majority of larger organizations I’ve worked for (and which shaped my earlier thinking) encourage people to limit the conversations and focus on doing the work.  Conversations are kept for meetings and personal life is totally excluded from these meetings.  It’s considered unprofessional to talk about your personal life in a business meeting.

The importance of conversations in aligning teams

Yet, the most successful project I’ve worked on was one where we mixed business and pleasure.  In fact, a seemingly impossible project turned into the flagship product for a large international group, based on informal conversations for half of the day.

I didn’t realize how important those conversations were in our success until much later.  At the time, the manager (and company as a whole) was not interested in the project and believed it would fail.  They left us to do our own thing while they focused on the more important projects.  No-one told us how to communicate or what to talk about.

We ended up chatting about random things and making jokes for most of the day, spending far fewer hours working than chatting.  A few months later we shipped and the product was so successful that it became the flagship product for the group.

What we didn’t realize at the time was how important these conversations were in strengthening our relationships.  These conversations helped us understand each other and our diverse cultures better.  It made us like each other much more, which meant we wanted to help each other succeed. It helped us work on the same thing and fixing one problem at a time.

So next time when you’re struggling with team alignment, try spending more time on building relationships and have more conversations.  Raise the awareness towards what you want to achieve and how, and clarify boundaries.

Conversations matter.

Originally published at: https://peopledevelopmentmagazine.com/2020/01/20/the-a-b-cs-of-team-alignment/