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Alignment: The Buzz Word Worth Keeping
Startups, and management overall, is a topic area rife with buzzwords.
While it’s fun to jab at how everything nowadays is a “flywheel” (or how we need to constantly “unpack” things 🙄) – there is one buzzword that I’m going to keep using until the cows come home, and that is “alignment”.
It’s not just that I love using the word “alignment” (though I do). It’s that I think the importance of it is highly undervalued in startups.
So, in this piece, let’s talk for a moment about alignment – what it is and what it isn’t, and why it matters in a fast-moving startup.
First, a quick definition via analogy – (my father-in-law is a long-time mechanic and I’m going to attempt to make him proud here – so buckle your seatbelts, I’m going for it…)
If you’ve ever owned a vehicle before, you know that a car regularly needs its alignment checked.
Mechanics hoist your car up on a rack and make adjustments until all four wheels are parallel. When a vehicle’s tires are in alignment, a car moves straight ahead and all tires wear evenly. But the more you drive, the more your alignment starts to slip.
It happens in tiny increments over time, so slowly you may not notice it at first — and when you do, you may excuse the issue as an uneven road, or nothing to be concerned over. But eventually, if not corrected, you start to really notice your car veering to one side of the road. As your tires and wheels incur damage, the once-simple process of driving becomes more difficult and dangerous.
The same thing happens within startups, and within companies of any size.
Just like in a vehicle, when teams fall out of alignment:
You hear it – a below-the-surface grumbling, or loud shrieking (depending on your culture). Sometimes it sounds like “who even knows what marketing is up to…”
You see it – a team may be burning out, not getting the support they need while the demand on their function continues to grow
You feel it – you need to constantly intervene to weigh in on priorities, resources, commitments.
It’s exhausting – and after some time, it’s a terrible drain on resources and worse, morale.
Alignment is not about the “stars aligning” (it’s more than luck!), or seeking uniformity in plan or approach across teams (no way). It’s about ensuring that when you hit the accelerator, you don’t fly off the road.
What Alignment Looks Like
Ultimately, alignment between two teams (or broadly, across a leadership team) boils down to two things:
1: We can agree on where we're headed and what paths we’re willing to explore
This agreement is not just about the “final destination” but also about the few critical pit-stops along the way. Vision is easy to latch onto, and we’re all pretty clear on what’s happening this week and next – but what assumptions are we making about what happens in between? Can we agree on 2-3 paths that give us the best chance of getting there?
This shared medium-term perspective in a large company might be referred to as “strategic alignment” where the pinnacle of alignment looks like teams and resources lining up beautifully with a declared strategy.
In a startup, this level of alignment happens when you can agree on a thesis. Here is a quick exercise to help you start to align on yours.
2: Along the way, we will make hard decisions that keep us moving forward, together
As we work alongside one another, and learn what actually happens when we start to build / test / grow this thing – how likely are we to support the right efforts, and importantly, de-prioritize the right distractions?
Note: this is the collective “we,” not the local “we.”
When seeking alignment across teams, it tends to come down to prioritization and resource allocation. When two teams are well-aligned, they generally can agree on how to deploy resources (both time and budget) at a high level:
Product and Engineering can tell you which 3 releases are the most critical this year, and what work should come before anything else.
HR knows how to allocate recruiters to their hiring pipeline, and will prioritize hires that are tied to critical efforts.
As you scale, and you have multiple products in the market, or multiple units that are growing concurrently – this becomes really hard. This tends to be when you see people playing with org structures or incentives to address this.
For most startups, especially those with teams over 30, I recommend a set of company-level goals with regular checkpoints for discussion (monthly or quarterly) as a way to drive alignment across teams.
What Alignment Doesn’t Look Like
We agree on everything, all the time – nope. Productive divergence (like debate, brainstorming) is exactly what you want to see on a team, and why you build diverse teams to begin with. But you want to then be able to converge back into agreement on the big things (ie. where we are headed and what paths we are willing to explore to get there)
We talk everyday or produce detailed internal reports – not necessarily. Regular communication (both live and async) helps ensure your teams are adjusting expectations and views on where you’re headed, but be careful: detailed reports or regular status meetings do NOT equate to alignment.
We share an air-tight plan – no need, but integrity and follow-through go a long way toward helping to keep teams in alignment. If one team is flailing and another is consistent, they’ll naturally fall out of alignment.
We had one good goals discussion – yeah right. Head-nodding in one goals discussion rarely means true alignment. It’s when the reality of the following Monday comes around (and teams are faced with re-balancing their existing and new commitments) that you get a better sense of where things stand.
Alignment needs to get checked and re-checked often
Just like with your car, alignment needs to be checked and rechecked regularly. And if you take speed bumps at 40 mph (like me), you’ll regularly find yourself in situations where alignment is thrown off.
These can be significant external things like:
A competitor preempts your launch and ships something better and cheaper
Macro conditions cause a swift drop in demand for your flagship product
Or, internal things:
Team 1 is blocked and needs something from Team 2, but Team 2 is over-capacity
Team 3 launches something, learns a ton, and wants to explore a new path forward that impacts Teams 1 + 2
A team member who is critical to a launch leaves and now dates are at risk
All of the above represent bumps in the road, and call for a check in alignment.
As your team starts to scale, your collective impact will depend on your ability to keep your teams working in unison. True alignment across teams can supercharge you towards your goals, and misalignments can grate on a team to a point of burnout. In a startup, where every bet counts and surprises lurk around every corner — it’s critical to check and re-check your alignment.
I’d love to hear from you
How have you found success in getting to (and staying) aligned at your fast-moving company?
I’ll be digging into all aspects of strategy and operations while scaling here — if that interests you, subscribe!