When “alignment” is simply not enough
What does Alignment get you?
If you do a generic search for ‘Organizational Alignment’ on Google, you will see close to 75 million results. And it is a great topic! When a team is aligned, they are working toward the same goal with the same vision.
When a team or organization is not aligned, everyone is milling about doing whatever they feel to be in the best interest of their team, but without a clear direction. As the rain falls, it falls where it will, each drop to its own destination. But when the drops collect and begin to move together a current is formed that may eventually meet a stream or river.
Where does it fall short?
A river, when properly filled and moving within its banks, holds within itself the power to support life and growth. However, when the river overflows its banks and becomes a flood, its power becomes that of destruction.
“Alignment” is when we are all walking the same direction toward the same goal. Even a flood can be aligned to the river as it is traveling in the same direction. “Synergy” is when we are all on the same side working together, much like the river within its banks.
You can be aligned on two different sides of the Grand Canyon. You can know the direction that you are walking, and can have the same goal that you are walking toward, but if you are on different sides of the divide it will be difficult to communicate if something is delaying your progress and can be next to impossible to provide or request help if its needed.
Consider for a moment the development lifecycle. The typical development lifecycle, no matter the methodology, tends to follow the same pattern:
And while the typical development lifecycle works well there is a risk inherent with this approach that every organization that is looking to stay aligned and operating with synergy must remain watchful against.
In larger organizations it is not uncommon to see each step of the process become its own department or division responsible solely for its specific area. When this happens, you will see “work silos” begin to form. And while silos can bring a level of accountability and compliance, they also bring bottlenecks and competition for resources; and when problems begin to arise each group tends to try to blame the others.
Setting aside the potential for destructive politics for another time, let us focus on the prospective risk of the bottleneck. Many of us have, at some time or another, been introduced to the concept of the ‘phone game’ as children. For those that may not be familiar, a person in a large group whispers a simple sentence into the ear of another member of the group. That person in turn whispers what they heard to the next person in the group, and so on. Once the last person in the group receives the message, they state it outload. Much of the time the final message greatly differs from the original because as it travels further from the source it becomes reinterpreted or misunderstood.
The same principle applies to requirements in a siloed organization. The original intent of the requirement may not be understood by the time it comes to the Implementation and Testing teams, and so what is delivered is neither what was asked for nor needed.
Additionally, when steps from one silo are dependent on the steps in another to be completed before they can start project timelines will have a higher propensity to become negatively impacted by any delay upstream.
How do we bridge the gap?
The most common answer that I hear when I ask this question is “Go Agile!” Agile works for many situations, but not all. It allows for earlier adoption and is more flexible to changing at the speed of the business, but it does come with its own set of drawbacks.
Let us consider Agile and Waterfall in the scenario of building a house. In the traditional method of building a house the Architect draws up the plans, the Contractors get the permits and builds the house, the landscaper makes the lawn look nice, and then the buyer approves everything and moves in. This process can take several months. If the buyer is ok with that kind of timeline (and for a house they generally are), this works great as they have end up with a finished product to use and enjoy. However, they are limited on the types of changes that they are allowed during the construction phase.
If we look at using the Agile method toward building the house, the Architect still draws up the plans, and the Contractors get the necessary permits, but everything is done in phases. So, the foundation and shell of the house may be ready to move into for the buyer, but the house may be unfinished inside. The advantages of this approach are:
The cost can be spread out over a longer period if finances are a concern
Changes can be easier to implement and less costly to manage
The product is usable sooner
Some of the disadvantages to this approach are:
The value of the product is less than if it were finished
The product is not as pleasant to use until it is finished
So, what does this have to do with alignment and synergy? Agile works best by making use of smaller self-organizing teams with open lines of communication. Developers, testers, and stakeholders are in constant contact with each other from requirements through delivery. By design, this can be a step toward removing silos. However, as mentioned earlier, Agile does not work for every product, and it can still be used within silos, so it may be a step in the right direction but it is not a guaranteed solution to help provide the synergy that you are looking for.
The greatest challenge to synergy is communication. We have already discussed the risks that a siloed organization brings to communication, but they are just that: risks. The key to synergy is an open line of communication. There is an old proverb that states that a 3-ply cord is not easily broken, and this is true.
There is a common belief that delivery teams should not interact with business stakeholders. While it is true that these groups often see things differently it is extremely important that the delivery team understand what the users are experiencing. It has been said that to truly understand someone you should walk a mile in their shoes. At the very least, permitting the delivery teams to observe the daily operations of the users will allow them to understand what they are trying to accomplish.
Tactical Alignment to Strategy
The Chinese strategist and general Sun Tzu is attributed with the saying “strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”
Organizational Alignment gives the direction that the team should be working toward. Strategies are provided by leadership, and the architects and program managers provide the tactics to achieve these strategies. It is the responsibility of the delivery teams to deliver on these tactics. By constant communication of both vision and strategy, the entire organization can see the incremental benefits of their tactical efforts.
Many times, however, the strategic objective is overlooked in favor of the short-term win. “Quick fixes” to address temporary issues that are not part of the strategic plan, while alleviating a current pain, can quickly amount to a large amount of technical debt and can hamstring the endgame. This is not to say that the current pains should be ignored, but the path to resolve them should be considered as part of the result.
So, remember alignment alone is not enough. The truly successful organization has true synergy, acting as a single body and not as a loose collective of individuals. And synergy starts with stepping out of our silos and empires and opening the lines of communication throughout our organizations, for the good of the organization.
About the Author
Dan Curry serves as our Director of Global CRM Delivery and Architecture with over 14 years’ experience in creating specialized clients solutions in process automation, data-driven application design, and team dynamics. He holds multiple Salesforce and industry specific certifications. Outside of his professional life, Dan spends time with his family, is an active minister in his local church, and practices Gadi Kempojitsu and Krav Maga where he is both an instructor and mentor.
Director, Global CRM Delivery and Architecture
St. Louis, Mo