Team Performance

Why team alignment is the most important factor in project success

We all know it, but how do we measure and foster alignment in our teams and projects in real-time.

Think back: Have you ever worked in a team where everyone was focused on what they thought was the goal —   but during or nearing the end of the project, realized they had gotten it all wrong?

Now, think back again: Have you ever been part of a team where everyone was in sync, on the same page, and pursuing one common and collective goal?

What were the outcomes for each of these teams? Which team was more successful in achieving its goals? What separated the second team from the first?

The answer is simple: misalignment. But why is it that so many project teams become misaligned, and how do we prevent it from happening in the first place?

Why team alignment is critical

In simplified terms,  a project manager’s job is to ensure that their team achieves the project’s objectives while managing the potential risks throughout. The project must not only achieve its objectives, it must also stay within budget, and on schedule, and must ultimately satisfy project- and stakeholder requirements with its quality.

It sounds routine, but the reality is that most organizations today suffer from some form of unrealized project outcomes, whether it’s in their internal projects or their client-facing projects.. Projects fail or do not meet their objectives for many reasons, but we argue that the root cause is a deviation (which is not to be confused with agility, though one can lead to the other) — deviation from the plan, the process, or the execution.

Having the most sophisticated, elaborately documented plan does not guarantee project success, especially not if the people responsible for executing it are out of sync from the start. Keeping the planners, executors, and stakeholders aligned throughout the project lifecycle dramatically reduces the probability of deviation — and, by extension, dramatically increases the chances of success.

“The consensus is clear. An aligned team is an efficient team that can move faster, think faster, and grow faster. While it’s critical to have the right systems and frameworks that will align your team, it is equally important to simultaneously train the key leaders of your team on how to implement these systems and frameworks.” Verne Harnish, Founder, Entrepreneurs’ Organization

Being aligned with the end user is also crucial, especially for product development teams. What you’re building and what your customers (internal or external) expect you to give them need to be the same thing, and achieving that means going beyond the surveys and focus groups you conduct in the research phase. This sounds simple, but if you were to ask even the most successful companies like Microsoft and Google about it, you’d be surprised at how many of their products have been pulled from the market due to lack of adoption.

Alignment is also vital for the bottom line: research by the Workforce Intelligence Institute shows that when employees are aligned and focused, a company’s financial performance improves.

As teams scale and become distributed, the risk of misalignment increases dramatically. In addition, with the ever-increasing, company-wide adoption of agility, organizations need to be laser-focused on alignment if they are to successfully implement this style of work.

“Misalignment causes teams to underperform, and its roots are not always easy to discern.” knowledgeworkx

What causes misalignment?

  • Lack of clarity about the project’s scope, process, purpose, roles, and responsibilities.
  • Conflicting agendas as a result of leadership or team members competing for personal gain.
  • Conflicting objectives as a result of differences in desired outcomes between business units.
  • Lack of trust between the team and the project lead, or among team members.  
  • Lack of transparency at multiple levels, ranging from being kept in the dark by senior management regarding certain issues to not knowing what fellow team members are working on.
  • Communication breakdown between sponsors, stakeholders, and team members.
  • Blurred reporting lines that make it difficult to know who is who, and often result in overlapping reporting.
  • Lack of empathy in culture clashes, when not enough focus is directed at the needs and perspectives of individuals from different business units and cultures.

How can I prevent misalignment?

  • Form teams that are small from the outset — consider matching team members based on personality and skillset.
  • Agree on methodologies and workflows. Create visual representations of how the project will be executed, including project dependencies, handovers, etc. in your representation.
  • Clarify expectations before the team starts working on the project. This includes outlining what success looks like, and what metrics the team and the project are going to be measured against.
  • Define the purpose of the project and how it relates to your organization’s strategy.
  • Digitize all requirements and resources, ensuring everyone knows where to find necessary information.
  • Outline who is responsible for decision-making, and establish a defined process involving a limited number of people — if you involve too many people, decision-making will stall.
  • Identify what might go wrong before starting the project to prepare ahead of time for all possible deviations. This includes taking note of potential ‘blockers’ — team members known to challenge authority, or struggle to collaborate effectively with others, etc.

How can I ensure continuous alignment?

  • Accountability should be enforced through frequent updates and the use of project management tools. .
  • Continuous clarity is necessary. Goals and priorities might shift, and some members’ roles might be adjusted — it is crucial that these changes are constantly communicated so that everyone knows who to contact for what.
  • Transparency should be maintained throughout the project. This will not only foster alignment but also increase trust. Secret strategy meetings among senior management aren’t useful — your project executors can’t drive your strategy effectively if they don’t know what it actually is.
  • Over-communicate at every stage of the project, with both your team and other stakeholders. Never leave anything open to interpretation. Stick to public channels for comms, even when you think other team members don’t need to know about a specific conversation — they might still find it useful.
  • Frequent check-ins are essential. These usually happen in the form of stand-ups or retros. But one-on-one check-ins are also important to identify blockers and to provide individual support.
  • Real-time reporting should not focus exclusively on binary metrics such as completion and budget adherence — team performance and engagement should also be reported.  
  • Listen to the people on the frontlines of your project. It’s likely that they have ideas about how to increase efficiency, and insights into challenges you might not know about.  

“Last but not least, some sources of misalignment could have a positive impact on the project as they provide different perspectives. Therefore, look for opportunities, not just threats!” Marco Perezzani, Project Management Institute

What does alignment look like?

How do you know when you’ve achieved alignment? It’s very simple. If you ask your team “What is the purpose of this project, and what does success look like?” and 90% of them answer correctly, you’re already well above average. But if only 60% — or fewer, even — can answer correctly, you’ve still got some digging to do.

If you’ve ever seen a murmuration of starlings, you’ve seen the pinnacle of team alignment embodied. It’s the ultimate combination of synergy and agility — and a beautiful sight to see.

In order to prevent misalignment, it’s crucial to measure the levels of alignment, and more specifically the factors that contribute to misalignment. We’ve done the work to research, design and bring to market - a tool that does exactly that. Request a demo today to see how.

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