Why team alignment is the most important factor in project success

Think back... Do you remember working in a team where everyone was focused on what they thought to be the goal, but which in fact wasn’t the goal at all? Or perhaps where everyone was pursuing their own personal agenda as opposed to the team’s collective mission?

Bentzy Goldman
Bentzy Goldman

Now think of a team you were part of where everyone was in sync, all on the same page and pursuing the same shared mission.

What were the different outcomes of those two teams? Which one was more successful in achieving its goals? What seperated 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 happening in the first place?

Why team alignment is critical

Overly simplified, the job of a project manager is to ensure that the team achieves the project’s objectives while managing the potential risks throughout. Not only must the project achieve its objectives, but it must do so within budget, on schedule, and to a degree of quality that satisfies project and stakeholder requirements.

It sounds routine, but the reality is that most organizations today suffer from some form of unrealized project outcomes, whether it be an internal project or a client facing project. Projects fail or do not meet their objectives for many reasons, but the root cause, we argue is, deviation – from the plan, process, or team execution. (we do differentiate between ‘deviation’ and ‘agile’, although sometimes being too agile can cause deviation.)

Having the most sophisticated plan with the most elaborate documentation does not guarantee a successful project, especially if the people responsible for executing are out of sync from the start. Keeping the planners, executors, and stakeholders aligned throughout the project lifecycle dramatically reduces the probability of deviation, which 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, EO Founder

It is also critical to be aligned with the end user, specifically in a product development team. This means doing more than just a survey or focus group during the research phase. What you are building and what your customers (internal or external) are expecting needs to be the same thing.

This sounds simple, but just ask even the most successful companies like Microsoft and Google how many of their products have been pulled from the market due to a lack of adoption.

From a bottom-line perspective, research by the Workforce Intelligence Institute shows that when employees are aligned and focused, they positively affect the company’s financial performance.

As teams scale and become distributed, the risk of misalignment increases dramatically. In addition, with the ever-increasing, company-wide adoption of agile, 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 – On the project’s scope, process, purpose, roles, and responsibilities.

  • Conflicting agendas – When leadership or individuals compete for personal gain.

  • Conflicting objectives – When different business units have different desired outcomes.

  • Lack of trust – From project leads and between team members themselves.

  • Lack of transparency – From senior levels as well as knowing who’s working on what.

  • Communication breakdown – Between sponsors, stakeholders, and team members.

  • Blurred reporting lines – Not knowing who’s who; overlapping reporting.

  • Lack of empathy / Culture clashes – Not enough focus on 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 personality/skills matching).

  • Agree on methodologies and workflows. Use visual representations of how the project will be executed, including dependencies/handovers, etc.

  • Clarify expectations before the team starts the project. This includes outlining what success looks like and what metrics the team/project is going to be measured against.

  • Define the purpose of the project and how it ties to organizational strategy.

  • Digitize all requirements and resources to ensure everyone knows where to look for the information they need.

  • Outline who is responsible for decision-making and have a defined process for it that doesn’t include too many people as this slows down decision-making speed.

  • Identify what might go wrong before starting the project in order to be prepared ahead of time for all possible deviations. This includes potential ‘blockers’, people who are known to challenge authority and struggle to collaborate with others effectively, etc.

Perflo alignment graph

How can I ensure continuous alignment?

  • Accountability should be sustained through the use of project management tools and frequent updates between the team.

  • Continuous clarity as goals and priorities shift, constantly communicating changes in priorities as well as adjusted roles. It is critical for the team to know who to go to for what.

  • Transparency throughout the project not only fosters alignment but also increases trust. Holding secret senior-level meetings isn’t going to help the executors drive your strategy if they don’t even know what it is.

  • Over-communicate not only with the team but also with stakeholders at every stage of the project, never leaving things open to interpretation. Keep comms in public channels – even if you think others don’t need to know something, it may be helpful for them.

  • Frequent check-ins are essential, commonly in the form of stand-ups and retros. 1-on-1 check-ins are important to identify blockers and provide support on an individual level.

  • Real-time reporting not just on binary metrics like ‘task complete’ and budget but also on team performance and engagement.

  • Listen to the people on the frontlines of your project – they are likely to have ideas on how to increase efficiency and provide insights on challenges that may not be visible to you.

“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. PMI

What does alignment look like?

How do you know when you’ve achieved alignment? Well, 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. If, however, only 60% or 40% can answer correctly, you’ve got some digging to do.

On a more abstract level, if you’ve ever seen a murmuration of starlings, it embodies the pinnacle of what team alignment should look like. It is the ultimate form of synergy and agility combined. It’s also a beautiful site to watch!

What if there was a way to measure team alignment both at a project level and across all projects in my organization? Well, luckily there is, and it’s fresh out the box in all shades of blue: Welcome to Perflo.

Bentzy Goldman
Bentzy Goldman