We Need to Align – The Hard Thing About Alignment

We Need to Align!

Avatar von Steffen Hartmann

Please answer yourself a question: How many meetings “just to align each other” did you have in the last week? Feel free to check your calendar and think about all the meetings you had with the initial purpose of alignment. All these fancy circles, squads, all-hands, or whatever they called, meetings consuming a lot of working time during a week. They are set up with the best intentions, but often they feel awkward and somehow useless because they are not fulfilling the promise they brought – alignment.

Don’t get me wrong! Alignment is important, and it is definitely one of the key drivers in agile environments. But the more I observe attempts to align in the wild, the more I see the point that there are a lot of common misunderstandings of what alignment is about.

Alignment as an anti-pattern?!

Please bear with me for this provocative statement: I still believe in the need and power to be aligned – as people, a team, and an organization. The problem is HOW people try to reach that state of being aligned.

What I figured out: the number of “alignment meetings” per week reflects the lack of alignment in an organization. The bigger the number of “alignment meetings,” the bigger the misalignment. On the one hand, what may sound worse is the starting point for identifying the problem. Don’t worry. This is just how to diagnose the “alignment pathology,” but there are ways to fix it.

Why do we need to align?

Always start with WHY. What is the initial purpose of alignment, and what problem are we trying to fix while being aligned? For me, there is no “the one correct” answer to these questions. The problems and the needs of alignment in organizations are not one of these functional problems where an agile method can just be applied, and then these methods will fix the problems. The question of “why” and “where” we need to align requires a systemic observation of problems across the organization. 

Why do we fail on alignment?

1. Reporting is no alignment.

Many times alignment is used to fix management communication issues. This circumstance is not what agile coaches talk or think about when it comes to alignment. You need to ensure that all people in an organization know what they are doing and why they are doing it. What are the common goals we share? What is our purpose? What problems are we going to fix with what we do? Answering these questions will create a state of aligned individuals and teams across an organization and not many meetings to align. 

I have a request to all the managers out there: please stop hiding your need for reports behind “alignment.” Do not call this alignment if you have the need of people to report to you or assign tasks. Because what you do in reality is manage people and not align with them. People realize that and will lose the trust in everything named “alignment.”

2. Alignment is the outcome, not the task.

Why do many people mix up alignment and managing or steering individuals or teams? The reason is that they look at aligning as a task. Treating it as a functional problem and overseeing the systemic part of the problem or, even worse, treating alignment as a personal task to achieve. When we talk about alignment in “agile,” we want to fix the systemic part and not the one where people do not do what they were asked to do. This is a management problem and has nothing to do with alignment.

If you want to take just one takeaway from this article, please take this: alignment is an outcome of many different efforts and not the task you need to do to get into an aligned state. 

Let us recap the typical ingredients of alignment. Think of them as a goal and not a task, and your job as a manager is to create an environment where this outcome can happen – and you are the supporter to enable these outcomes.

  • Shared purpose – Vision and strategy and not task assignment
  • Transparency – Bring authority to information, not information to an authority
  • Feedback loops – Learning as organization, team, and not peer reviews of individual strength and desired things individuals need to improve
  • Focus – What is the overall goal we are aiming for? Focus implies clarity on business goals and strategy

3. Aligned autonomy (is not anarchy)

One of the most common mistakes regarding autonomy is that people – managers and engineers – mix it up with a form of anarchy.

Managers get afraid that autonomy is just another form of anarchy, and people are starting to do whatever they want. This is the reason why they push the wrong way of alignment. They begin to (micro)manage and set up a management structure to stay in control and mask this as alignment. That “fear is most of the time a bad consultant” is getting hurtful true in this case. People set up a clear command and control structure to fight the fear of anarchy, but this structure will not reach the goal of alignment.

On the other hand, also engineers and teams run in a similar trap, just from another perspective. They have the “Don’t tell me what to do” attitude of anarchy and think that this is what autonomy is all about. Outside world communication gets limited, and every approach to line up with other teams or organizational structures is getting denied with the excuse of autonomy. Alignment is seen as a way to cut off autonomy. This is not the case; if used correctly, alignment will enable genuine autonomy and freedom, creating a direction the shared effort points towards. 

How to escape the alignment trap?

Alignment requires better leadership.

Alignment is a people topic, but like almost every people topic, it is also a leadership topic. Leaders – I am not calling them managers by intent – are one of the crucial parts of creating an aligned environment. As already mentioned, this is not about creating alignment meetings, setting up reporting infrastructure, or sending out PowerPoint presentations with the newest twerks on strategy or company goals. It is about focusing on two crucial pillars of leadership.

  • Clarity
    As a manager, if you don’t bring clarity, what else is your job? Focus needs clarity on management level to stay. This might be the most important learning I had while stuck in the alignment trap. It is impossible to achieve alignment if you lack a common goal, strategy, or so-called north-star. Too many managers try to hide in endless meetings and workshops about strategy and use this ongoing “alignment on management level” as an excuse to postpone or delay decisions that are creating clarity. This lack of direction through missing clarity is where all the problems with alignment start. How can we all walk in the same direction if we miss the direction? Even if you do not have them for yourself, bringing clarity is the superpower of good leaders. They align people on a goal and a strategy and do not try to hide behind slides and meetings. A shared target to aim at is the essential ingredient of alignment. This requires not less leadership; it requires better leadership.
  • Constraints
    As mentioned before, alignment and connected autonomy are not about anarchy. Clarity needs constraints to support the alignment. Please do not mix up “constraints” with a strict set of rules or detailed processes. You do not need rules; you need principles to align on. One of the best-known examples is for sure the “Don’t be evil” principle established as a guiding principle in the early years of Google. If you bring together a strong and clear vision, strategy, and mission what to achieve on the one hand and guiding principles as constraints or boundaries on the other, this is where real alignment can evolve. 

Cooperation will create alignment.

How can alignment evolve in an organization? What needs to be done to create alignment in an environment where autonomy is a crucial ingredient? The simple answer: kick-off cooperation in daily work across our organization. What sounds easy at first sight gets more complicated when you face reality. The problem, at least in my experience, is that there is this wrong idea that meetings are creating cooperation. So: more meetings, more cooperation. This is where things start to fall apart. Calendars are getting occupied by meetings, and the result is not more alignment but just more meetings and less time for real cooperation.

So let us define cooperation as working together and not just sitting in the same room. Working together is about fixing problems together, opening up for new ideas, discussing, arguing, and experimenting. This is the freedom you need to provide your people if you want to start on alignment. Bring people together, let them work together, let them argue, and let them party together on goals achieved.

There are many ways out in the wild to start this cooperation. CoP (Communities of Practice) or other initiatives driven by voluntary participation is one simple and efficient way. Why voluntary? Because you want to get intrinsic motivation in these communities and not just create another group of people, picked by managers, working on management topics. You want to have passion. You want to generate curiosity and people pulling into these topics, not limited by in which team they are or which part of the organization they belong to. You want to create an open environment for learning and fixing problems together.

So the most important thing to create alignment is focusing on cooperation and supporting this from a leadership level.

Alignment is an ongoing effort.

As we already learned, when it comes to a lack of alignment, we are not talking about a functional problem that can be solved by following five easy steps. We need to put an ongoing effort into a supportive environment or organization. It needs to be woven into your (company) culture, which requires constant leadership awareness. Even you as a leader are not the guy to fix it; you are the enabler and defender.

That means ongoing learning for all people involved, a lot of experiments, inspect and adapt. Many different ingredients influence success: The people in the organization, the supportive infrastructure with (agile) coaches, and the support of leadership. As you see, cooperation is the way to go. Aligned environments need to be aligned on all levels. Especially on a management level, it needs an explicit agreement on how to support this effort and not just to pronounce the word “alignment” correctly.

Alignment is not a tool of the management toolbox. It starts when we use the superpower that made us human – cooperation. This should be an easy call if we agree on this perspective of humanity because cooperation is something we as humans do by design.

So let us rediscover this strength again and get aligned on the way. 

And please stop aligning each other now!

Avatar von Steffen Hartmann


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