Is your Team really Aligned?

The story you are about to read is a real life story.

A few years ago I participated in a management team meeting of John (not his real name) and his team. John’s company, a Fortune 100 business, had recently done an acquisition in Europe and was in the middle of the post merger integration. He had been appointed as chief executive of a new division and was assigned by the board to lead and finish the set up and integration of this new division within 12 months. His first focus had been to select and form a new management team. He had selected a team of people from both companies and was confident that he had found some of the best people for this job. Together they had defined an integration strategy and execution plan and they had started with the roll out immediately.

But some months down the road things were not going as John had expected. The integration process was not going fast enough. Deadlines were missed. People were becoming restless and asking for clarity. Resistance from employees against the integration plans was increasing. The board was raising questions about John’s leadership and was putting more pressure on John to speed up. He had called me for advice on how to break through this.

John’s team was a strong team, you could notice immediately. He had gathered a group of people that had a lot of experience, strong minds, ambitious and a lot of energy. The discussions were lively and there was an atmosphere of openness. You got the impression there was mutual trust and a strong drive forward.

But then some other things also got my attention:

  • Almost all discussions were focusing on the HOW of the integration process.

Team members were trying to convince each other of their solution to speed up the integration. A lot of discussion took place and it led to agreement or disagreement. When there was agreement the team decided on the action to follow. Where there was disagreement the team got stuck and put the topic aside in order not to lose too much time. “We will park it for now and get back to it next meeting. That will give each of us some time to further reflect on it. But next time we need to have a decision!” Somehow a lot of topics took much more discussion and time to get solved, than expected upfront.

  • Team members were mostly in a ‘selling’ mode.

There were a lot of phrases like:  “Yes, you mentioned this already several times now but you are missing my point.” / “No listen, I believe this is the wrong solution.” / “I do not understand why you keep on saying that. We’ve discussed this now various times and we need to make a decision here!” Somehow the team was very open and respectful amongst each other but not really understanding each other.

  • The team struggled with having the right focus.

The team had put together a clear list op topics that were not going as planned. These points were translated into a priority list. Every meeting the list was the core of the agenda and was run through point by point. But not every point seemed to be equally important for every team member: “Why are we still talking about this point? We decided last meeting that you would arrange this.” / “I understand that it is important to fix this, but for my people it is more important that we give them a solution for the other point I just mentioned.” Somehow the team did not know which topics were creating the most leverage for speeding up the integration process.  Instead they tried to focus on everything.

When I shared my observations with John it became clear to him that his team’s drive to move forward prevented them from addressing some essential questions:

  • What are the mechanisms that are holding us back?
  • Where are these mechanisms coming from?
  • What should be our focus to break through these mechanisms?
  • What are the appropriate actions?
  • How are we going to carry out these actions

He realized that he had underestimated the importance of having team alignment around these questions. Although the team seemed very focused, open, forward driven, a real team, it was in fact still trying to find its way to become a really aligned team.

He decided to make some crucial changes in the way he was leading his team meetings. Changes that almost immediately started to have effect. Step by step the team gained focus, became more efficient in decision making and execution and grew confidence in finishing the integration successfully. And the organization and the board noticed this.

John decided to:

  • Ask his team what they thought of the level of alignment: he stressed the importance of being really aligned and made it a specific topic on the agenda.
  • Make alignment tangible: he expressed to his team that it goes beyond teamwork and ‘liking each other’, that it is about ‘do we have the same view on WHAT needs to be done to reach our goals’ before we go to the HOW.
  • Listen carefully to the differences in the feedback he received from his team members. He realized these differences were important signals of potential non-alignment.
  • Ask ‘getting to the bone’ questions, they deepened the discussion and got him closer to the essence:
    • What do you believe will be the impact of the integration process on your work/team/department?
    • What do you expect from your colleagues in making this integration process a success?
    • What according to you are we missing in the way we work together that is hindering us in reaching our goals?
    • What is your perception of the level of trust and openness amongst each other? What is missing? Why?
  • Not mistake what people shared with him for what they really thought. He probed and listened carefully. Created an atmosphere in which people felt free to speak. He installed a specific ground rule during the team meetings that was called ‘we listen to learn instead of listen to react’.
  • Focus on the perceptions of his team members, NOT on whether they were right or wrong. He realized that perceptions were driving behavior and that different perceptions could reveal non-alignment.

Do you recognize this story? How do you create alignment in your team? Please share your experience with us and  feel free to comment!

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