• joe@jhanderson.biz   
    (206) 351-5607   

  • If I had to choose one word as the key indicator of technology initiative success, I’d choose alignment. It’s a word that comes up a lot in planning and implementation of initiatives. Nina Schoen, who lead the PMO at Getty Images when I was there, would often say when a new initiative was launched, “Now we just need to stay aligned.”

    The need for alignment around technology initiatives starts at the top of an organization and remains vital to success through every level. Senior executives need to be aligned with each other and their board and shareholders around the strategic plans they develop.  CIOs/CTOs and their direct reports need to be aligned on their plans for delivering technology to support those strategies. Implementation teams need alignment in multiple ways: alignment within each team, alignment across teams, alignment with related functions like QA and UX, alignment with partners like product management and business operational teams plans and strategies, alignment with key vendors.

    As Tolstoy said, “All happy families are just alike.” When all of the above stay aligned, happiness results. If any of the above are not aligned or don’t stay aligned…not so happy. Consider these examples from military history:

    • Douglas MacArthur’s amphibious landing at Incheon in 1950 during the Korean War was a masterpiece of alignment among multiple military organizations under difficult conditions. By contrast, Julius Caesar’s assault on Britain in 55 B.C.E. without his cavalry (which apparently had different priorities) was a failure. Unfortunately for the Britons, after a retrospective and some process changes the Romans tried again the next year and were successful.
    • At the Battle of Cannae in 216 B.C.E. the Carthaginian general Hannibal took advantage of strategic misalignments between two Roman VPs consuls to surround and crush the Roman army.
    • At the Battle of Vicksburg in 1863, General U.S. Grant’s Union Army troops were stuck on one side of the Mississippi River with Confederate forces massed on the opposite shore. By maintaining alignment with the Navy command (no easy task at that time) Grant was able to get his troops across the river, leading to a decisive victory.

    Even when managers are carrying weapons, alignment among groups of people is not easy to achieve, and it’s even harder to maintain.

    If humans were not complex conscious beings, then we could think of alignment on an initiative the way we think about the alignment of shafts on machinery or the wheels on your car. In the mechanistic view of organizations that developed in the 19th century, this is a great analogy: you give all the parts of the machine their instructions, fit them together, wind them up and watch them go. This conception of alignment has a lot of appeal: the specifications never change, you only have to make adjustments occasionally, and if a part breaks you just swap in a new one.

    Of course, we know better than this. Technology teams are not factories, and technology outputs are not identical manufactured objects. We know that the specifications are always changing, constant adjustments are needed, and more often than not team members turn out to be irreplaceable.

    We’ve made some strides toward acknowledging these realities with disciplines like Scrum and Agile and Lean, all of which are predicated on the reality of constant change. So far, so good—but organizations and leaders give away their underlying mechanistic assumptions when they use language like “we’re now Agile” or “we’ve almost completed our SAFe journey.” Instead of Stamping Presses and Conveyer Belts and Overhead Cranes, we have Sprint Planning and Standups and Retrospectives: processes that are more dynamic but still mechanical.

    We can also see that these processes are fundamentally mechanical because of the way they run day to day. Too often, standups are formulaic and don’t generate real understanding; retrospectives are formulaic and don’t get to the real issues; user stories are formulaic and don’t generate real understanding. While formulas may be great for keeping a stamping press aligned, they are not enough to keep humans aligned.

    There is a lot of good that comes from getting the mechanics right, of course. Having clear shared goals, clearly defined roles, and processes that are well-understood and implemented are all vitally important to team alignment. But mechanics are not enough: the requirements for alignment are not just mechanical but also human. Alignment includes a set of dependencies that, operating in conjunction with practices like Lean/Agile and the rest, will deliver on the need to keep humans truly aligned and not just doing the same activities.

    Alignment Dependency #1: Shared Understanding of the Work

    The first criterion is that everyone involved in a collaborative effort will be working constantly toward a shared mental model of the initiative and its components: its goals, objectives, requirements, tasks, technologies, and processes. I say “constantly working toward a shared mental model” rather than “have a shared mental model” for two reasons:

    • Most initiatives are too complex for their systems to be fully knowable: every mental model will be partial and inadequate.
    • Even if a mental model of the system could be accurately constructed and shared at any point in time, the system will be constantly changing so that the mental model will become immediately obsolete.

    While mental models can never converge completely, keeping them close to one another increases alignment and improves the chances of success. There will always be a gap, of course, but the functional impact of the gap can be reduced.  Without continual effort, however, mental models diverge quickly, and the possibility of successful delivery gets more remote.

    Alignment Dependency #2: Shared Understanding of People

    The second criterion is that everyone involved needs to be constantly working toward an understanding of themselves and the others working on the initiative: the people part of the system.

    “Working toward” is even more appropriate here than with the mental model of the initiative: understanding of self and others will always be partial and highly dynamic: we keep learning more about ourselves all the time, and that process never really stops.

    When you have an adequate working understanding of yourself and others, staying aligned on the mental model of the initiative is possible (though not necessarily easy); without such an understanding, it isn’t possible at all.

    Alignment Dependency #3: Shared Intention to Act and Adjust

    In addition to a sufficiently aligned mental model and human understanding, there needs to be a shared willingness to take action, notice the results of the action and continually make adjustments based on feedback from the system and the people. Since the mental model and the human understanding are both provisional, this feedback is crucial. It is necessary to close the inevitable gap between appearance and reality.

    There’s another reason teams need a shared intention to act: in rough seas, a ship in motion is much more stable and maneuverable than a ship that stands still. It’s hard for teams that are not aligned to get things done—but inaction only makes matters worse. Getting into motion increases the likelihood of alignment.