In a recent workshop we hosted with close to 100 participants, we asked participants “what organisational problems, obstacles, and risks are preventing you from successfully testing business ideas”? One of the biggest pains iterated by most participants was the lack of time. Most corporate innovation teams we work with are often from multiple disciplines, building and testing an idea on top of their existing workload. What initially starts as an opportunity to work on an exciting new project quickly devolves into frustration where a lot of work is done with poor results and little impact.
The most effective teams we’ve come across have actually used this to their advantage. Where the constraint of time becomes a focusing mechanism for better planning, better team management and ultimately a more agile workflow. Building a strong team alignment can be a critical first step in establishing this workflow.
In this guest post, Stefano Mastrogiacomo, founder of TeamAlignment.co and the inventor of the Team Alignment Map (TAM) shares his insights from 20-years of experience helping teams of all sizes work better together.
Unfortunately like many of us, it’s probably the case that you’ve had the unpleasant experience of working in a misaligned team. These experiences are often characterized by a lack of progress and create unbearable delays as team members remain stuck in operational issues.
I've been helping teams of all sizes work together over the last 20-years and here are some of the key signs, symptoms and consequences of misalignment I’ve witnessed first-hand:
- It’s unclear who does what
- Invaluable time is lost in endless meetings
- Work is delivered way too slowly
- Priorities keep changing and no one can figure out why
- Projects often duplicate and overlap
- Team members work in silos
- A lot of work is done with poor results and little impact
The biggest pain of misalignment is undoubtedly a bad effort / impact ratio. Teams invest a lot of effort for low impact. Work is delivered but eventually no one is happy with the result, and things don't change. Significant energy and resources are lost as the consequence of a poor division of labor and a poor integration of the individual parts, not because people didn't work hard.
So what exactly is team alignment?
Simply put, team alignment is the process that helps team members work in a coordinated way. Coordination being defined as the harmonious functioning of parts. For us humans, this alignment process is achieved through communication.
Aligning is communicating.
Anything teams achieve successfully, from having a party to building an airplane, is a by-product of successful communication and coordination. Team members must communicate constantly to synchronize with each other before and during a project to align their individual contributions successfully and achieve their joint mission. In other words, it takes coordination to work together, but that in itself takes communication.
To align -or communicate effectively- means to create and maintain sufficient common ground in the team. A teams’ common ground is the sum of what everyone knows that the others know too (Clark, 1996).
The concept of common ground
Synonyms: common knowledge, mutual understanding, and shared understanding
All know something, and also know that all the others know.
- A knows X
- B knows X
- A and B know that they both know X
(De Freitas and al., 2019)
For example, if Ann (A) knows that Bob (B) has agreed to fix a software bug before tomorrow noon, and Bob knows that Ann knows, that information is part of Ann’s and Bob’s common ground. If only Bob knows and Ann doesn’t know, then ‘fixing the bug before noon’ is not part of their common ground. It’s private information for Bob.
Common ground is an important enabler of team success. When team members share enough common ground, people can predict one another’s actions successfully. They make individual decisions holding the same information and taking into account the others, contributions align and the team operates more harmoniously.
On the other hand, you can expect only poor results from a team with a low common ground. Participants run into unavoidable execution problems due to perception gaps. The lack of shared information makes participants wrongly predict each other’s actions and the collaboration goes off track.
Do all communication channels have the same impact on team alignment?
Not all communication channels have the same impact on common ground creation (Clark and Brennan, 1991). Some are more efficient than others. To be more precise, they convey a lot more information, faster and give greater opportunities to validate that the information is mutually shared.
Conversation, or face-to-face dialog, remains the most effective ‘technology’ by far, followed by videoconferencing which makes great progress in lowering the distance barrier and developing immersive experiences.
Task forces, war rooms and other crisis units still illustrate the importance of in-person meetings when extreme efficiency is needed. Why? Because face-to-face helps create common ground more efficiently, hence build more and faster collective power.
All the other communication channels present communication obstacles compared to face-to-face interaction – for example, the lack of nonverbal and contextual information, poor signal, delays, interruptions or slow feedback (Clark and Brennan, 1991). These obstacles can considerably reduce our ability to build common ground and hence slow down the activation of our teams’ super-powers.
Get the most out of each communication channel
A team’s common ground is metaphorically speaking like a hot air balloon: the basket is the project, the team the passengers, and the balloon is the common ground. For the project to take off, more energy is required at the beginning to inflate the balloon (the common ground). Synchronous communication channels are excellent for that: They let more information go through and offer more possibilities to repair misunderstandings in real time.
Once in flight, small corrections are enough to fly on to the destination. Asynchronous communication channels are perfect for that and provide more work flexibility for each participant.
Prefer face-to-face, video conference, and conference calls when the team’s common ground needs a strong boost, for example when:
- Initiating new activities and projects
- Solving complex problems
- Performing creative tasks
- Working with new teams
Use email, chat rooms, and other asynchronous media for incremental updates such as:
- Notifying about changes
- Co-editing documents
- Sharing updates and status reports
- Working with long-established teams
I do not recommend starting projects with brand new teams using asynchronous channels only. Asynchronous channels don't offer sufficient bandwidth to help align new teams successfully. To date, I haven't met such teams capable of inflating the hot air balloon with matches. When this happens, the project suffers from the very beginning to an unlikely end.
Tools to achieve high performance teamwork
High-Impact Tools for Teams presents 2 alignment tools specifically designed to boost the common ground of project teams.
The Team Alignment Map (TAM) to rapidly align on the team mission, the objectives to be achieved and by whom, and reduce risks.
The Team Contract to negotiate and establish team behaviors and rules, both in general or temporarily.
Both tools help structure meetings to inflate the hot air balloon with power and align the team: strong common ground is established, participants become more confident and more effective together for greater impact.
* This article is an adapted excerpt from Stefano Mastrogiocomo’s book, High Impact Tools for Teams.
Find out more about Stefano's work on www.teamalignment.co/
- Clark, H. H. (1996). Using language. Cambridge University Press
- Clark, H. H., & Brennan, S. E. (1991). Grounding in Communication
- Clark, H. H., & Henetz, T. (2014). Working together. In The Oxford handbook of language and social psychology (p. 85). Oxford University Press, USA.
- De Freitas, K. Thomas, P. DeScioli, and S. Pinker. "Common Knowledge, Coordination, and Strategic Mentalizing in Human Social Life," Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 116, no. 28 (2019): 13751–13758.