Main illustration: Aimee Bee Brooks
The most successful companies are those that are aligned – on strategy, purpose and objectives.
Many assume this is the job of senior leadership, but much of this alignment happens at a team level. More than 70% of employees claim to be disengaged from their company, and good managers can go a long way to ensuring their team is on the same page about their purpose, their tools and their output.
To illustrate, good managers can turn a team that looks like this…
into a team that looks something like this.
As an engineering manager for the past two and a half years, here’s how I’ve kept my teams aligned.
1. Create a shared understanding of what you’re building
Alignment without shared understanding is temporary. The fact that Jane and Joe are in the same boat counts for little when one starts rowing forward and the other is rowing backwards. Great teams row relentlessly together in the right direction, even when the destination shifts.
A great way to do this is to get everyone in a room, leave your assumptions at the door, and make sure everyone understands the same thing about how your product works. For example, we did this recently on our Delivery team, responsible for the millions of messages sent through Intercom every month.
Our session started with a single Post-It, which represented one of our customers setting a message live. We then used this to create a map of our underlying infrastructure, which by the end covered an entire whiteboard ?
Building this shared understanding takes a bit of work upfront, but pays off many times over. We still reference this map all the time, and it helps quickly clear up any misconceptions about how our product works.
2. Make sure everyone knows what quality looks like
Good managers remove obstacles so that team members can focus on one thing and really get it done. But when everyone has a single focus on a single area, you can be so focused on your own domain that you lose sight of the big picture. Good managers can act as this all seeing, omnipresent force that has a laser focus on your team’s bar for quality, and can keep everyone on track to meet it.
We do this by making sure everyone is up to date with our key operational and product metrics. We put these in a single dashboard somewhere visible to the entire team. It means that everyone can focus deeply on their work, but at a glance see if our bar for quality is being maintained, or any fires need to be put out.
3. Give everyone a say in the direction the team is headed
Many managers try the “command and control” style of management, where decisions flow from the top to the bottom. They make the decisions, then tell the team what to do and who is expected to go away and build it.
In situations like this, it’s very hard to keep a team aligned. It’s incredibly demotivating for a team to just execute someone else’s orders. If you deny a team of making their own decisions, don’t be surprised when they leave for a team where they can.
A great way to help solve this is to create a culture where individual team members are given direct input into the product roadmap. We do this at a micro level at our weekly ideation sessions. Many team members might be reluctant to share ideas early on, but you can help things along by asking questions of your team, which inevitably teases out new ideas. Is this the most impactful thing we can work on right on? Could we solve this problem in a different way? Are we even solving the right problem at all? (Here’s an excellent primer from Julia Evans on how to foster a culture of good questions in your engineering team.)
Good questions are a really great way of nudging engineers towards having an impact on your roadmap. And the more impact your team feel they’re having, the more aligned everyone will be.
For an engineering manager with a busy roadmap, or a regular manager with a heavy list of demands, alignment can always feel like a nice to have rather than a pressing priority. But ignore it at your peril. One or two misaligned people might not seem like much in the short term, but it can be extremely damaging for your team, and subsequently your company. Get alignment right, and you’ll prevent your team drifting off course and avoid any icebergs looming on the horizon.