Organisations typically approach creating team alignment by setting and sharing a company vision. But this often falls flat, failing to resonate with team members on the ground because the importance of helping individuals understand how they personally contribute to the bigger picture is often overlooked.
For instance, when there’s a disconnect between the company’s vision and team members’ personal connection to it, you’ll often hear comments like, “I can’t do anything about vision, so why is it in my KPIs?”
That’s why any approach to organisational alignment needs to leverage a range of different information and mechanisms to help staff discover why, how and what they can do to help achieve what the company wants.
A company vision doesn’t always help align your team
In today’s increasingly volatile workplace, the ability to respond quickly and effectively under uncertain conditions is critical to ensuring a business’ long-term success.
Start-ups that succeed are generally able to identify and capture value quickly and persistently. This ability is often tied to size – as a start-up grows from a small business to a large-medium enterprise, its ability to respond quickly to different market conditions can deteriorate.
However, by ensuring team members are aligned, pulling in the same direction and so maximising the value they generate, deterioration due to growth can be minimised.
The missing ingredient in alignment…
Enter ‘Systems Thinking’ and ‘Directed Opportunism.’ Both recognise that, to create purpose-driven teams that are committed and aligned to achieving a specific goal, it’s important individuals generate their own personal meaning from higher-level intent.
By increasing alignment and accelerating feedback loops between team members and leaders, you can increase the rate at which teams respond to changing market conditions. Team members who have a clearer understanding of what they’re trying to achieve and the environment that they find themselves in are more willing to take independent necessary action.
The more they understand and are aligned to team goals, the more they will challenge activities that don’t achieve these goals.
Yet, as with all things involving people, building alignment within a team is much easier said than done. Luckily, Directed Opportunism can be used to build purpose-aligned teams within volatile working environments.
What is a strategy brief?
Inspired by Stephen Bungay’s, “The Art of Action: How Leaders Close the Gaps Between Plans, Actions and Results,” and adapted using concepts from Peter Senge’s, “The Fifth Discipline,” the Strategy Brief uses 5 key factors to create alignment between leadership and team members. It:
- Acts as a focal point, so team members can create and anchor to a shared vision
- Exposes inherent/underlying assumptions, enabling greater levels of engagement and flexibility when defining and executing a strategy
- Encourages dialogue around effective strategies and tactics that maximise the odds a team will succeed
- Enables accelerated feedback and back-briefs between leadership and teams
- Visualises the strategy and its key factors within a canvas, enabling complex interactions to arise by making change easier.
By combining these 5 factors, you can explore complicated problem spaces in complex environments and encourage individuals to align and move forward.
How does a strategy brief help align your team?
1. Create a focal point for complex interactions
Start by using the Strategy Brief canvas to anchor discussions and help your team explore their environment.
Teams dealing with complex problems often struggle to agree about what they’re trying to achieve. Numerous perspectives on how best to solve a problem can also result in multiple viable approaches to choose from, exacerbating confusion.
It’s therefore important to establish an anchor or focal point for your team, concentrating discussions and fostering alignment.
Create a canvas that allows complex interactions to occur while you fill in the components of what you’re trying to do. As you capture important information, the emerging interactions will enable your team to improve and refine the canvas.
The canvas’s visual nature means the interactions of different data points are more obvious and, because it’s easy to change, encourages revision of content as you go along.
2. Start with the facts to reduce emotions
Once everyone is interacting and engaging with each other, it can be quite easy for emotions to run high. Disagreements tend to arise when opinions differ or where there are strong perspectives around how best to solve problems.
It’s often less clear what the underlying assumptions that underpin each individual’s perspectives are. Exposing underlying assumptions can help reduce conflict by increasing awareness about the factors influencing a volatile situation.
You should start this activity by capturing only factual, indisputable information about the environment that’s free of emotion. This will start the briefing off with constructive input from all team members and create a foundation for shared understanding.
If you find team members can’t accept each item as fact without disagreement, check whether you’re discussing perspectives rather than observations.
A side note: Although it’s possible to achieve a positive outcome via a directive approach, the real power of this exercise comes from encouraging wide-ranging input. Not only are team members often better positioned to observe existing issues in their workplace, having them contribute to a shared picture of their environment also increases their ownership of the strategy and their willingness to challenge any observations.
Hot tip: While filling in this section, you’ll want to think about questions like:
- “Where is the company moving to?”
- “Do we have any current people issues?”
- “What’s the health of the product we work on?”
- “What other factors about the environment are important to our team?”
3. Alignment in your context and strategies
Now that you have a factual basis to start from, you can begin aligning your team around their interpretations of their environment. You should also be discussing what strategies your team feels they can use to solve problems.
Strategies should be targeted at broad rules that help your team make the same or similar decisions when encountering different challenges. For example, an effective strategy in chess would be to “control the middle of the board,” or within an Agile delivery environment, “to develop T-based skills over skill specialisation.”
Alignment on strategies enables teams to pull in the same direction – even when they work in autonomous units.
While it’s not always possible for all team members to agree on the best interpretation of their environment and the strategies to be used, even discussing and exposing the assumptions underpinning different perspectives improves the likelihood of reaching consensus.
Discussing differing perspectives also contributes to a shared mental model about the environment, which gives your team better insights into the systemic changes to be made and minimises the likelihood of applying suboptimal solutions.
If a deadlock occurs, you can always cast a deciding vote to set an agreed perspective. This provides a ‘go forward’ position and allows team members to act in alignment.
Hot tip: While filling in this section, you’ll want to think about questions like:
- “If people are having issues, what does it mean to how we are supporting our teams?”
- “If our product is old, what should we do about it?”
- “If our company is executing a new company strategy, then what strategies are likely to help my team succeed?”
4. What do we want to achieve?
With the environment and context elements of your canvas complete, your team can now frame the rest of the Strategy Brief around what they intend to achieve. They’ll need to consider:
- Their value proposition: “What is the value we deliver that no one else can?”
- Their freedoms: “What can we safely change without repercussions?”
- Their boundaries: “What things limit what we can do?”
- Their intent: “What do we want to achieve?”
- Their high-level intent: “What does our boss, and our boss’ boss want to achieve?”
Understanding these 5 factors will help define a set of implied activities and objectives your team can use to pursue a common goal (sometimes an arbitrary time boundary can help build focus when defining achievable objectives).
5. Knowing if you’re making progress
As the Strategy Brief’s final element, articulation of Key Results and Metrics is critical to facilitating effective feedback. It helps your team understand whether tangible progress is being made in an uncertain environment and offers new observations and facts to inform the next iteration.
It’s vital to have a good blend of holistic metrics to guide overall objectives, as well as operational metrics to assist a shorter feedback loop (when driving a car, a holistic metric might be something like “distance to destination” while an operational metric is more akin to “current speed” or “current fuel level”).
Give it a go…
It’s sometimes good to understand how the canvas works yourself before trying it with your team.
You may also want to consider regular review sessions every 4-6 weeks to ensure your team keeps evaluating their environment. If anything does change, you’ll need to decide whether you’re still working toward the right goals and – if you’re not – schedule in another Strategy Brief.
I’ve found the strategy brief sessions I’ve run have been extremely insightful and I hope you will, too!