When the tires on your car are out of alignment, the tread wears unevenly. The car might get more difficult to control and start drifting off course. If bad weather hits, things can get dangerous.
The same can be said for teams. Misalignment makes it harder to get to your destination, and it can make a little bit of rain feel like a storm.
When it comes to managing complex, cross-functional projects, project management organizations are crucial for achieving alignment and weathering any storms. However, alignment can be a challenge, especially when different teams use different tools and rely on different processes. What's more, working with a range of diverse stakeholders makes it difficult to keep everyone informed and get buy-in across the board. For project managers and anyone else who's responsible for the success of complex initiatives, alignment is a nonnegotiable — but it's not easy.
What is team alignment?
Put simply, team alignment means that all collaborators and stakeholders are on the same page. But in practice, it's more complex than that.
Even when organizations agree on their purpose and their goals, individuals or teams might have different ideas about how to achieve them. That can cause teams to adopt different strategies, tactics, processes, and workflows that are not well-aligned. In order to create alignment across an organization, PMOs and cross-functional teams must do the work to understand both the problems they're solving and how they're solving them — together.
There are many schools of thought that dictate how to align around an overarching strategy and the tactics needed to achieve the team's desired outcomes. The approach you take will depend on how your organization is structured and what you're working to achieve. Alignment also extends beyond strategy, to the day-to-day work that team members are doing. Are there clearly defined workflows and processes that they follow? How do they collaborate with other teams in the organization? How is important information documented, shared, and consumed by stakeholders? And when change happens — because it's bound to happen — how does each team or department adapt while staying aligned with one another?
It's critical to create (and enforce) processes and that will keep everyone aligned and informed. That doesn't mean leaders and project managers need to micromanage their teams — in fact, effective processes and well-structured meetings actually give team members more freedom to do their best work without forcing them to reinvent the wheel.
What does team alignment look like?
With so many communication apps and tools, alignment can feel like a solved problem. This is an illusion — confusing the ability to connect and get aligned with actual alignment. In fact, a whopping 65% of workers say they feel less connected to their coworkers in the wake of the pandemic.
Teams that are truly connected and aligned are empowered to work quickly and decisively without a lot of hand-holding. They have a shared understanding of guidelines and expectations. They communicate effectively without the need for frequent status update meetings and check-ins.
But don't confuse alignment with agreement. In fact, too much agreement can be a bad sign. It might mean that people aren't speaking their minds, or that you're not getting diversity of input.
Ryan McKeever, writer and CX leader, puts it like this: “Alignment means everyone can support a decision as if it were their own, even if they might have done something different if they ruled the world … Agreement, on the other hand, requires a higher degree of commitment from each person on the team. Agreement means there is unanimity of opinion.”
The only way to get on the same page and move past disagreements is to either align or agree. You don’t always need agreement to move forward. Sometimes, alignment is enough.
Internal vs external alignment
Alignment is important whether you're working with internal or external teams. Project management organizations are responsible for managing complex, cross-functional projects that involve a lot of different stakeholders. Even internal teams can have vastly different ways of working, and it's up to PMOs to bridge those gaps.
The same is true when working with external collaborators. That includes consultants working with clients, companies working with agency partners, and so on. For example, two Marketing teams from different organizations might collaborate to bring an integration of their products to market. That requires tight alignment across two organizations that likely rely on different technology and processes.
Benefits of team alignment
Without alignment, collaboration suffers. Communication breaks down, deadlines get missed, and teams struggle to do their best work. On the flip side, effective alignment allows things to run smoothly and enables everyone to play their part in achieving shared goals.
Ultimately, alignment benefits teams because it:
Gets everyone working toward a common goal
Decreases the need for micromanagement
Makes it easier to get buy-in from collaborators and stakeholders
Improves team morale
Empowers collaborators to do their best work
Increases agility; allows teams to adapt quickly, deliver on time or ahead of schedule
Sets the stage for innovation
“Great teams ensure that everyone’s ideas are genuinely considered, which then creates a willingness to rally around whatever decision is ultimately made by the group.” – Patrick Lencioni, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team
19 ways to create alignment with your team
As a project manager or team leader, it's important to ensure that your team is working as effectively and efficiently as possible. A big part of this is enabling effective team alignment — making sure everyone is on the same page, has the resources they need to collaborate effectively, and understands how their work ties into your overarching team goals. In this blog post, we'll look at some tips for creating better team alignment.
Read on to learn 19 powerful ways to increase alignment, whether you're managing projects for internal teams, collaborating cross-functionally, or working with clients.
1. Identify the Jobs to Be Done
Jobs to Be Done, or JTBD, is a framework that businesses can use to better understand the needs of their customers. The core idea behind this approach is to focus on solutions rather than features or benefits. By aligning around the "jobs" that customers are trying to accomplish and identifying the reasons they might choose your product or service over other solutions out there, you can gain valuable insights into how to better meet the needs of your users or clients.
At its heart, JTBD is a collaborative, iterative process that requires alignment across different departments within a company. By engaging with stakeholders from marketing, sales, product, design, engineering, and support teams, businesses can achieve true alignment around the user's needs — something that's critical for delivering effective products and services. Ultimately, focusing on the "jobs" that customers are trying to accomplish is one of the best ways to ensure that everyone rallies around solving the right problems and providing real value to your customers.
Objectives and key results, or OKRs, are a set of goals (i.e., objectives) and measurable outcomes (i.e., key results) that are used to assess progress and track success at the organizational level. These goals typically relate to high-level strategic priorities, such as revenue growth, customer retention, or innovation, as well as more internally focused objectives like improving employee morale or increasing efficiency. Ultimately, OKR planning helps organizations stay focused on their most important goals while tracking their progress toward achieving these goals over time.
By clearly articulating what you hope to achieve, you can ensure that your team remains aligned with team-level goals, as well as with larger objectives or requirements set by leadership and other decision-makers. OKRs help ensure that goals are set from both a top-down and bottom-up perspective — and that everyone is working toward the same outcomes. When done effectively, this collaborative approach to strategic planning allows projects to move forward in an organized and efficient manner while maximizing their chances of long-term success.
Prioritization is a crucial step in the planning process because it gives teams a unified vision of the most important opportunities that will create business impact and customer value. Failing to effectively prioritize projects and initiatives can lead to chaos. If you've ever been on a team where everyone sets their own individual goals and priorities, you've experienced this. Deadlines get missed, projects go over budget, and team members lose trust in one another. But when teams effectively set and communicate their shared priorities, they can stay aligned and hit their deadlines, even when there are competing priorities or new circumstances arise.
An alignment workshop is an interactive process that brings together members of a team to align on a project or strategy. In a typical alignment workshop, a facilitator will lead discussions and exercises about the team's common goals, as well as any potential risks or barriers to achieving these goals. By encouraging honest and constructive feedback, the workshop gives team members a shared understanding of how the group can work together in order to achieve their objectives. This can be especially useful for project managers who are trying to keep cross-functional projects on track and ensure that resources are being properly allocated.
Consider creating a virtual team headquarters to serve as a “single source of truth” for a particular project or team. If resources are scattered across multiple platforms, it can be tough for team members to access the information they need, including software, files, documents, org charts, and training materials.
A cross-functional team at Jacobs did this particularly well when the pandemic forced them to work entirely remotely. They could no longer collaborate in person, so they used MURAL to design a virtual collaboration hub full of all the resources that collaborators needed to work together effectively and stay aligned. Read their story and learn how you can create a virtual HQ of your own with MURAL.
By outlining the overarching goals, objectives, and scope of a project, briefs provide a clear and cohesive picture that all team members can access and refer to on a regular basis. They serve as a single source of truth for important project information, such as key stakeholders, timelines, budgets, requirements, and deliverables.
7. Set up channels for cross-functional team collaboration
There are more communication channels and collaboration tools than ever before — so why is it so hard to keep everyone on the same page? At the root of this problem is fragmentation. Conversations, decisions, and information are dispersed across a multitude of channels, and it's hard to keep up. There are the tried-and-true standards: in-person, face-to-face is the pinnacle of connection, allowing for flexibility in style and nuance, and providing the most context. Teams today must also rely on email, chat and messaging services, video conferencing, and phone calls. There’s also the “dark web” of communication, which includes comments on documents of all types, conversations happening in project management software, and more.
Whether you're a project manager working with cross-functional teams or a consultant working with clients, it's important to explicitly document where different types of collaboration and communication should take place. However, sometimes that's not enough. One way to overcome this all-too-common challenge is by taking advantage of integrations between the different tools and products the team uses. That way, if someone leaves a comment, feedback, or update in one place, you can leverage integrations to ensure that the message is broadcast to the proper channels.
Tip: Learn about Mural's integrations and apps to connect to your existing workflows and improve team alignment. Mural integrates with the tools you're already using, including Microsoft Teams, Google Workspace, Microsoft 365, Confluence, Jira, Slack, and more.
8. Create documentation (that actually gets used)
In most workplaces, documentation is seen as a necessary evil. While it can be helpful for clarifying processes or communicating requirements, it often fails to engage the people who need that information most. This can lead to a lack of collaboration and alignment within teams, preventing them from working together effectively.
Many forms of documentation are dense and overly complicated, presenting large amounts of information in long, text-based paragraphs or uninspiring tables and charts. This can discourage users from engaging with the content, leading them to ignore important guidelines intended to help them do their jobs more efficiently.
To solve this problem, provide team members with documentation in multiple formats — not just text. One way to do this is by using Mural and Loom to create documentation that incorporates visuals, text, and even video content. You can also use connectors in Mural to create flowcharts that visualize processes and workflows. This visual approach makes the information more digestible and easier to understand. It works well for documenting processes and guidelines, as well as for documenting why decisions were made. That's because "showing your work" in Mural enables teams to communicate not just the outcomes, but how they arrived at those outcomes.
Retrospective meetings give team members the opportunity to reflect on completed projects. By discussing common goals and roadblocks, teams can work together to overcome obstacles and move forward more efficiently as a unit, helping the group to stay on track. There are a lot of ways to approach retrospectives. Some teams use the Rose, Bud, Thorn method, while others prefer to do a Traffic Light Retro. To get the most out of your retrospectives, Product School recommends answering four key questions:
What went well?
What went poorly?
What ideas do you have?
How should we take action?
At first, retros might feel a little uncomfortable. After all, they require everyone to evaluate the team's work and point out flaws. In that case, consider using private mode in Mural to encourage open, honest feedback from everyone while allowing them to remain anonymous. However, as team members get in the habit of regular retrospectives, they'll get more comfortable, uncovering shared challenges and new opportunities. This ultimately helps align teams around solving those challenges and taking advantage of the opportunities.
Sometimes, words aren’t enough to create shared understanding. To avoid talking in circles — or worse, thinking you’re aligned when you’re not — use visuals to communicate complex topics and make sure everyone is on the same page.
Whether you are coordinating a cross-team group of stakeholders, meetings are key to facilitating collaboration and alignment. To ensure that meetings remain effective and efficient, it's important to create an effective agenda and take advantage of pre-work to get everyone aligned before the meeting begins. This can include providing background materials for participants, reviewing notes from previous meetings, or using polls or surveys to solicit feedback.
The way a meeting is designed is also critical to its success. Make sure to structure it effectively by setting clear goals and creating an agenda that gets everyone aligned. You can use Mural's outline feature to clearly chart the agenda and give everyone context for every portion of the meeting. The outline also allows the meeting facilitators to easily present the meeting content and run any collaborative exercises and activities at the appropriate point during the meeting.
Finally, make sure that all decisions are captured for follow-up after the meeting has concluded. This can involve assigning action items or ensuring that all new ideas are captured and everyone understands what the next steps are.
Asynchronous (or async) collaboration allows teams to communicate and work together without having to do so simultaneously in real time. In order to include everyone, even if they can't attend a live meeting, you can have folks collaborate asynchronously in MURAL, create quick videos with Loom, or communicate via Microsoft Teams or Slack. Async is great for status updates, communicating information that isn't time-sensitive, and other points of alignment that don't require face-to-face interaction. It's an essential form of collaboration and communication for hybrid and remote teams.
Team charters are an excellent tool to set your team up for success. A team charter typically includes key information like the team's mission, vision, and objectives; roles and responsibilities; shared norms and guidelines for communication and behavior; and KPIs or metrics for measuring success. It ensures that everyone is aligned on the goals of the team, helps to prevent unnecessary miscommunications or conflict, and sets clear expectations for each team member. By establishing these shared guidelines at the outset, teams can work together more effectively in achieving their goals.
Having clearly defined roles within a team is essential for effective collaboration and alignment. Each member needs to understand not just their job description, but also their role within the team and in each particular project or initiative. When everyone clearly understands the roles they play in achieving shared goals, they're empowered to contribute and work together effectively.
This is especially important in cross-functional teams, in which members come from different backgrounds and bring different skills and perspectives to the table. When swimlanes are established and all team members know what tasks they are responsible for, it becomes easier for everyone to play their own part in achieving the team's shared goals. As a result, team alignment increases, leading to greater productivity and success at both the individual and organizational levels.
Alignment starts on day one with a new company, and effective onboarding is imperative to get new employees up to speed quickly. Take the time to understand what resources new team members need — and how they can best find and engage with those resources.
Keep in mind that they'll likely be inundated with a firehose of information, from company policies and benefits to new names and faces. Creating understanding and alignment won't happen overnight, but consistency and access to the right information are key. That includes a team charter, an org chart, documentation about the team's processes, and so on. You can also assign new team members a "buddy" — someone who's been at the organization for a while and can be a resource as the new team member ramps up.
No one likes to feel out of the loop, but it can be hard to raise your voice when you’re confused or need context. Often, people avoid asking questions for fear of looking silly — but a team that’s connected and has built trust doesn’t believe in stupid questions. These teams encourage curiosity and clarification to get everyone on the same page. To check for understanding and alignment, make it a ritual to create a judgment-free space for those “dumb” questions.
17. Create rituals with your team
In the workplace, a ritual is something that your team does on a routine basis in order to achieve a specific outcome. For example, outcomes might include increasing employee engagement, boosting team morale, or driving alignment. While structured meetings such as agile ceremonies can be considered rituals, many rituals actually come in the form of smaller activities or habits. Ultimately, the rituals that are included in an organization will depend on its unique culture and mission. However, regardless of the specifics involved, these activities play an important role in bringing individuals together and helping them work towards shared goals.
The best rituals aren't prescribed by leadership; they're agreed upon by the team as a whole. Collaborate with your team to put rituals in place that explicitly increase alignment. For example, you might adopt the ritual of closing out every meeting by documenting next steps or action items for each attendee. Or, to build the interpersonal connections that are necessary for alignment, workers might participate in monthly team-building activities in-person or virtually.
The more connected a team is, the more comfortable they feel communicating with one another, asking questions, and flagging potential roadblocks. That's why connection and trust are key ingredients for driving alignment. One way to build that trust is to focus on team-building. You don't necessarily need to host elaborate events or fly everyone to the same location in order to build team rapport. It can be as simple as using online warm-ups and icebreakers to get folks comfortable. These short exercises performed at the beginning of a meeting can introduce new team members, conquer awkwardness, and help teammates get to know each other.
When you’re working with a distributed team, it’s important to be intentional about celebrating both individual achievements and shared accomplishments. Celebrating wins as a team can help to increase morale, engagement, and alignment across the group. Regularly calling out specific contributions and the ways they support the organization’s goals lets everyone on the team know that their work is valued and appreciated. It also keeps everyone informed about what other team members have been working on and gives them the opportunity to get up to speed on any projects or news they might have missed.
Tip: Use Mural's celebrate feature to bring emphasize positive moments and celebrate wins during meetings.
The bottom line
Alignment is critical for teams to work together effectively. If team members are not aligned, it can lead to frustration, misunderstanding, and inefficiencies. Team leaders and project management organizations are responsible for keeping stakeholders aligned by managing tasks, timelines, and resources. To support these efforts, you can take advantage of the 19 tips in this article to help drive and maintain team alignment.
How Mural makes it easy to create alignment
Mural makes cross-functional collaboration easy, meaning less rework, better processes, and faster decision-making. Design and lead more efficient and productive meetings with facilitation features like timer, private mode, and anonymous voting — and take advantage of asynchronous collaboration to get more done with fewer meetings. MURAL gives you the tools you need to create a culture where everyone is connected, contributing, and empowered to deliver business-driving outcomes.
Shauna Ward is a senior content marketing manager at MURAL. As a former remote work skeptic, she enjoys creating resources that help hybrid and distributed teams make collaboration fun, easy, and effective.