The folks at Fellow recently posed this question on Twitter: What is the most underrated management skill? My answer? Alignment.
— Bruce Tulgan (@BruceTulgan) October 6, 2020
Alignment has become a huge focus of my work with clients over the past decade or so. As silos have broken down across organizations and high levels of collaboration have become the norm, more and more managers are struggling to keep everyone moving in the right direction. Now that many of us are working remotely, that struggle is harder than ever.
But the problem with placing this responsibility on managers alone is that alignment isn’t unidirectional. Alignment has to be ensured up, down, sideways, and diagonally on the organization chart. Everyone has to play their part to ensure they are aligned with key collaborators.
I encourage managers and their teams to embrace what I call extreme alignment.
Extreme alignment is basically this: staying in alignment with your boss, your direct reports, and your colleagues in the organization. It sounds simple. You may even believe you’re already doing all you can to be aligned in this way. But what I have seen, over and over again, is that teams who believe they are sufficiently communicating with one another are often failing to communicate in a way that is structured and substantive.
Often, there’s a lot of activity that looks like strong communication and feels productive: Slack threads, email chains, a carousel of Zoom meetings. But how often are these things adding real value and leaving teams feeling aligned? How often are they simply a form of busywork that distracts from the real work?
It can be tempting to view email response time and Zoom attendance as measures of productivity—for yourself and others. Don’t fall for it. Shift the focus instead to other forms of communication and interaction that add real value and establish true alignment.
Don’t wait until a routine review of the work comes along to show others what you’ve been doing. By then, you might discover you’ve been going in the wrong direction for quite some time.
Even if you have a clear deliverable with a concrete deadline, don’t wait until you deliver the final product to find out if it meets the expectations. Instead, check in with your key collaborators early on. Don’t just describe your work, provide drafts and samples: “This is an example of the product I’m building. Does this meet your requirements? What adjustments should I make?”
This is especially useful when taking on a new responsibility or collaborating with someone who has different technical expertise than you. The way you accomplish one part of the project often impacts someone else’s work in ways you would never expect. You want to know those details as soon as possible.
Watching you complete a task (even if it’s just a Zoom screenshare) will give your collaborators a clear view of what you are doing and how you are doing it. It also gives you an opportunity to have your work spot-checked and identify and solve any hidden problems.
Are you scheduling routine one-on-one conversations with your key collaborators? If you’re not, you should be. Group meetings and more informal check-ins simply cannot achieve the same level of focused alignment you can achieve talking one-on-one.
In these one-on-ones, account for exactly what you’ve done on your assignments for the person in question since your last conversation: “These are the concrete steps I’ve taken. This is what I did, and how. These are the steps I followed.”
Once you’ve given an honest account, have them do the same. Ask to clarify next steps. As long as you are engaged in an ongoing, consistent, one-on-one dialogue with that person, this element will become routine.
Providing an accurate account of your ongoing tasks can be stressful—after all, there’s so much to keep track of. So, make it easier for yourself. Track your concrete actions by making good, rigorous use of project plans, checklists, and activity logs.
Monitor in writing whether you are meeting the goals and deadlines laid out in a project plan. Make notes and report to your collaborators at regular intervals. Use an activity log, noting exactly what you are doing each day, including breaks and interruptions. Each time you move on to a new activity, note the time and activity. Even if you do this only periodically, you will acquire valuable information about how efficiently you work and where you’re able to make adjustments.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions! Very rarely will this be a signal that you’re not the right person for the job. (And if it is, wouldn’t you want to know that anyway?) Instead, asking the right questions tells others you’re committed to doing things well and doing them right. Learning in plain sight goes a long way toward boosting your reputation.
But even better than asking questions alone is taking diligent notes on the response. Again, don’t try to hide it! You’ll be surprised how much respect you convey by taking the time to take note of what other people are saying.
Ask customers, vendors, coworkers, and everyone else you work with to give you honest feedback about your performance. It can be as simple as asking them, “Be honest, how am I doing?”
People talk. Word spreads. You should know what people think about your work. Use that data as feedback to continuously improve and get better and better at working together.