I once was part of a team where we were a total of 7 software developers building a startup. When I arrived everything was in chaos. Only parts of the system were working in seemingly random areas. It wasn’t possible to complete a single workflow or even transaction in a smooth user flow. It seemed as if every piece of progress resulted in more bugs that required rework than improving the application. The more time we spent working on it, the more time we needed to fix what was broken in the process. It was the perfect environment to figure out the most productive thing to do.
After spending some time with the developers to understand the main issue stopping them from moving forward, I realized this was the first time these developers worked on the same piece of software. They’ve never worked on the same piece of software requiring more than one or two people.
They’ve never needed to work together as a team towards a mutual goal.
The root of being unproductive
Although by the time I joined the team, there were many problems to deal with, there was only one thing that truly transformed the team from being unproductive and busy – requiring people to work extremely long hours – to productive and relaxed with more than enough time to finish the items on the backlog, have coffee or a beer with a colleague, and join the daily lunchtime exercise session on the patio outside.
Regardless of whether you work in software development, industry, retail, or healthcare, the principles of productivity remain the same. The most productive thing you can do when working as part of a team is to focus on alignment.
You are as weak as your weakest link and if there is even one person in the team not aligned with the rest, you will end up having to redo the same work or introducing unnecessary conflict and confusion that slows the rest of the team down.
By far the most productive thing you can do is spend time making sure everyone is aligned.
a metaphor for alignment
Alignment can best be described by using a metaphor of a beehive. In a beehive, every bee works together to ensure that the queen is able to reproduce more bees. There are some worker bees that go out to find nectar and make honey. Others are fighter bees assigned to protect the hive. Every bee has a clear role and is part of a bigger purpose, while they have full autonomy as to how they fulfil this role.
When the hive is under attack, worker bees stop collecting honey and transform into fighter bees until the hive is safe again. The roles fluidly adapt in response to changes in the environment.
Similarly, in any team environment, alignment means that many different people and roles work together towards a single, bigger purpose. While there might be different needs for different roles, ultimately, they are all working towards a mutual goal. When people focus on their rather selfish and exclusive goals, not taking the bigger purpose into consideration, problems start arising. First, it might only show as small cracks easily covered up, but over time a lack of alignment within an organization will result in the very foundation that held everything together falling apart.
What misalignment looks like
Typically it might look like the sales team only caring about getting new customers, regardless of the impact on support or development and whether the infrastructure can handle the added load. Or, it might look like developers who only care about writing code that showcase their individual talent, even when it isn’t what the customer needed and the designers spent so much time researching and fine-tuning.
Whenever a team within a bigger organization makes decisions without taking the rest of the organization into consideration, conflict and competition arise. This slows down productivity. Sometimes, it even causes the whole system to fall apart.
How to deal with conflicting needs
Alignment and autonomy require a clear goal or outcome, clear priorities, and clear roles and responsibilities with strong boundaries. Most importantly, it requires adequate feedback loops to allow you to rectify when you are caught off track.
Regardless of what your role in an organization, to avoid conflict and increase productivity, simply ask yourself these questions each time you work on something:
1. How is this piece of work supporting our bigger organizational goal and values?
2. Is this the most important and valuable piece to focus on now?
3. What is the best solution for our users and customers (even if it is maybe not my preferred solution)?
4. Who might be impacted by this work or decision? Have they been included?
5. Is everyone impacted on board with this decision?
Whenever there are conflicting needs, keep asking yourself these questions and respond appropriately. It might take a little more time upfront but will save you hours and even weeks of wasted effort further down the value stream.
There are many ways to improve productivity, but without an aligned team and organization, you’re fighting a losing battle. The most productive thing you can do is ensure alignment within your team and organization. When everyone is working together towards the same goal, you’re bound to succeed.
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With more than 20 years experience in the software development industry, Kate specializes in helping teams get unstuck, communicate better and ultimately be more productive. She believes in efficiency through fun implementing lean, agile and playful design as tools for process improvement and organizational change. Her goal is to create more happy, healthy and whole workplaces where each person thrives and productivity soars.