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The 5 Alignment Questions

In this episode, Tim and Junior introduce five simple but powerful questions to align teams and get everyone on the same page. They explain why alignment is critical yet often neglected, review the high cost of misalignment, and provide a practical framework to drive shared understanding and commitment among team members.

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Episode Show Notes

In this episode, Tim and Junior introduce five simple but powerful questions to align teams and get everyone on the same page. They explain why alignment is critical yet often neglected, review the high cost of misalignment, and provide a practical framework to drive shared understanding and commitment among team members.

5 Key Points
  1. Alignment ensures strategies, goals, processes, and people are working together effectively (0:04:28). It is a matter of degree, not binary.
  2. Misalignment compounds over time if unaddressed, risking failure (0:05:41). Assuming alignment without verifying is dangerous.
  3. The 5 Alignment Questions framework verifies understanding, surfaces concerns, clarifies roles, anticipates needs, and checks commitment (0:25:37).
  4. The questions invite participation through inquiry-based dialogue (0:27:29). Metrics alone don't ensure alignment.
  5. Alignment requires continuous intervention as misalignment is the natural process (0:50:13). It must be maintained through regular cycles.
Links:
HBR Article: 5 Questions to Get Your Project Team on the Same Page
Show Notes: leaderfactor.com/podcast

Episode Transcript

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0:00:02.8 Freddy: Welcome back, Culture by Design listeners. It's Freddy, one of the producers of the podcast. In today's episode, Tim and Junior introduce five simple but powerful questions to get your team aligned and on the same page. They explain why alignment is not the default in organizations, and review different types of misalignment from conflicting incentives to ambiguity around roles. This episode is based on Tim's latest Harvard Business Review article titled, "Five Questions To Get Your Project Team On The Same Page". The Five-Question Framework verifies understanding, surfaces concerns, clarifies roles, anticipates needs and checks the degree of commitment among team members. We will include a link to that article in today's episode show notes. As always, you can find today's episode show notes at leaderfactor.com/podcast. Now let's dive into today's episode, "Five Questions to Create Alignment".

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0:01:00.9 Junior: Welcome back everyone, to Culture by Design. I'm Junior, back with my co-host, Dr. Tim Clark. And today we'll be discussing the five alignment questions. Tim, how you doing? 

0:01:09.7 Tim: Doing great, Junior. How you doing today? 

0:01:12.0 Junior: Doing very well. I'm excited about today's episode. I think we got a lot of meat in here. And I think it's very practical. This has been one of the most valuable tools for me over the years, and I'm anxious to share it with all the listeners. A little while ago, HBR reached out to Tim asking if he'd like to submit a piece for a series they were putting together on project management. Tim said yes, he submitted, and the piece was published. So you can see this and other articles in Harvard Business Review on the topic of project management. There's some good ones in there. And we're happy to have been able to contribute. If you have not had a chance to read it, we will link it in the show notes. But there's only so much that you can put in an article. Isn't that right, Tim? 

0:01:55.1 Tim: That's really true. And I was thinking, Junior, about... This is about alignment, right? And I was thinking, when was the last time you talked to someone and they said, "Well, I'm working on alignment"? No one ever said that. They might say, "Well, I'm working on execution issues or innovation issues, or... " Right? But no one says, "Oh, I'm working on alignment." That's not a thing. I find that very interesting. And we're gonna get into why, but it's this behind-the-scenes intermediary step that is never done. And now we're going to address it directly and it really deserves that. It deserves that attention, even though we don't really talk about it in the course of normal everyday work life.

0:02:43.2 Junior: Yeah. Maybe we should be saying that.

0:02:45.3 Tim: Mm-hmm.

0:02:46.7 Junior: So our discussion today is gonna be a deeper dive that will give a little bit more color to those five questions. As I said, they've really helped me personally to become more effective as a leader. So Tim, let's start off with some context. What's at stake here when we're talking about alignment? What do we have at risk? What do we have to lose? 

0:03:05.3 Tim: Everything. I don't know how else to answer the question. Everything's at stake, because if you're not aligned, you can't execute the mission, the vision, the strategy. You can't do it. You would be working across purposes, you could be wasting resources, you're gonna be making trade-offs that don't even make sense. All kinds of things.

0:03:28.2 Junior: Yeah.

0:03:29.6 Tim: So what's at stake? What's not at stake? 

0:03:32.6 Junior: Well, and the application's really broad. The more I've thought about this, the more that I've used this over the years. I mean, this is helpful in planning a dinner party, it's helpful with your children, it's helpful anywhere, personal and professional life. Keeping these things in the back of your mind as you communicate and coordinate are really, really important. So let's begin with some definitions. What is alignment? What do we mean when we say alignment? If you go and search the definition, you'll find something like this. "The degree to which an organization's strategies, goals, structures and processes are working together effectively to achieve its desired outcomes." Right? So that's the definition as it relates to organizational alignment. And you'll notice the word "degree" in there. Alignment, like a lot of things we talk about, is a spectrum. It's not that you have it or you don't. It's how much do you have? So Tim, what's your take on that definition? 

0:04:28.0 Tim: No, I think that's right. In colloquial terms, we would say something like, "Are you on the same page? Are you unified? Are you agreed? Are you going in the same direction?" Right? We use language like that. And as you said, it is a matter of degree. I think as we go through this discussion today, Junior, we're going to hopefully illuminate just how important this is and how easily we neglect it, and how often we neglect it.

0:05:04.7 Junior: Inside alignment, we have several categories as they relate to organizations. We have strategic alignment, operational alignment, cultural alignment, organizational alignment in terms of structure, technological alignment. There's alignment that must be there across every piece of an organization. So when we say alignment, it's not just this one thing that relates to everyone about a specific topic. There's alignment that needs to be happening from the top down, in little pockets, in cross-functional teams, departments, business units, geographies. Anywhere there's more than one person, alignment comes into play because we have multiple people, different objectives, different ideas, right? 

0:05:46.3 Tim: I appreciate the fact that you broke alignment down into different kinds of alignment, because a lot of times we don't think about that strategic alignment versus operational alignment. Well, strategic alignment is about, what are the primary strategic goals and laying that out and making sure that we have shared understanding about what those are. Operational alignment, we then get into tactics, we get into operational details, right? So there are different kinds of alignment. And then you add on top of that the fact that there are degrees of alignment. And then you add on top of that the fact that alignment is never done. Oh. So it's never done? No, it's never done. It's perishable. In fact, that's one of the points that we make, Junior, is that the natural process of things is a process of moving into misalignment, right? It's like the law of increasing disorder. So we cannot assume that we will naturally move into alignment. We have to assume just the opposite. We will naturally move into a state of misalignment always.

0:07:01.0 Junior: I really like that idea because entropy's always working and it's always working on us as individuals. It's working on organizations. It's working on our alignment. And so if you leave things be, they're going to become increasingly disorderly. And so one of the things that has been apparent to me is the need for alignment across all of these areas. And it hasn't been obvious to me in the past. Let me give you an example. Technological alignment. So what's important about technological alignment? Well, if you leave that be, what's going to happen? Entropy. Increasing disorder. And so you might have a team, "Well, we're gonna use Excalidraw for our sketches. Well, we're gonna use Tldraw. We're gonna use Zoom. We're gonna use Google Meet. We're going to keep our stuff in Adobe. We're gonna use Figma. We're... " And so on and so forth. And before you know it, with a small team, you have 50 pieces of software that you're using and there's no alignment. And how does that show up on the bottom line? How does that show up in the competitive arena? 

0:08:06.1 Junior: Those are the interesting questions that we're going to get to the bottom of today. And so these do have bottom line impact. If you don't address the misalignment across each of these categories, you're gonna pay the price somewhere, right? That entropy doesn't just go into nothing. It has consequences.

0:08:24.4 Tim: And that's just technological alignment, Junior, that you're talking about. That's just that kind. And what we're acknowledging is that there's this natural proliferation into variants, into doing things in different ways, into moving in different directions and having different priorities and different views and different perspectives. And that's natural and normal. And so keeping alignment is just this constant process. It makes me think, Junior, that we have a Slack channel that's called Alignment.

0:09:00.7 Junior: Yeah.

0:09:01.2 Tim: Right? Why do we have that? 

0:09:02.1 Junior: I don't know why I didn't think about that for this episode. It's a good question.

0:09:06.1 Tim: Let's just think about this. Why did we create that Slack channel? 

0:09:09.8 Junior: Well, there was a need for it.

0:09:11.0 Tim: Yeah.

0:09:12.9 Junior: Right? Anytime there's a significant decision that affected the majority of the team, or it was sizable for whatever other reason, we put it in there, right? And there's a "What's new" and there's a "What do you have to do" and why it's important. There's a template with three or four questions on there that people answer when they put something in the Alignment channel. And so anytime you get a ding in the Alignment channel, you know, "Okay, that's something that I should go read." And it's very fast. "Hey, here's what's new." Right? "Here's what's going on and this is why I put it in the Alignment channel. Now you know." Right? And then, "Why is this important? "Okay, well this, this, this and this," and then "What do you have to do about it?" And there will be an ask or not. Nothing is purely informational or, "Hey, you need to do this thing. It'll take two minutes. Great." I don't even know if it's surprising. I was gonna say surprisingly effective, but it's been a very effective Slack channel.

0:10:03.4 Tim: Well, it goes back to the business definition of alignment that you just shared a minute ago, Junior, that all of these pieces, components, elements, they are reinforcing each other. And so if you think about the Slack channel, what are we trying to do? We're trying to inform you again and again and again, keep you up-to-date so that you have the proper contextual understanding of what's going on, so that everything that you say and do remains in alignment. So there's this constant need for updating.

0:10:40.5 Junior: And these don't have to be big updates either. It's a price change, it's a date change, it's whatever else. And the assumption... Because we have a weekly all-hands meeting, the assumption is that the weekly cadence isn't enough. And it's also fair to say that a daily cadence wouldn't be enough either. You never know when these things are gonna come down the pipe and when they do, you need to get them out there. And so I think that that says something about the frequency with which we should align, which is as needed, certainly, and that as needed is probably on a day, every other day for some bigger strategic issues.

0:11:18.1 Junior: So let's talk a little bit more about the stakes. I was thinking about the appropriate way to break this down. Organizations do two things: Execution and innovation, as you mentioned. They create value today, they create value tomorrow. That is all they do. Execution and innovation are both dependent on alignment. Now, that's a fundamental assumption, a premise for the entire conversation. If we can't agree and commit to moving in the same direction, it's very unlikely that we'll be able to achieve much that's meaningful. So is execution a product of alignment? Yes, certainly. Is innovation a product of alignment? Certainly. Now, you would have to argue and prove that those two things are not true in order to disprove the fact that alignment comes first. So what do you think? Do you think that's a fair argument? 

0:12:09.4 Tim: Yes, Junior. And it makes me realize that we run two different organizations at the same time. We run the executing organization and we create and deliver value today. But we are also running the innovation organization that is preparing to create value tomorrow and we're not sure how we're going to do that completely. We're trying things. We're testing. We're piloting. We are building prototypes. We're doing a lot of things. Those two companies, two organizations that we run kind of side by side or in parallel, they're not mutually exclusive. In fact, they're intertwined and one needs to inform the other. So it's not just that you're aligned in execution and that you're aligned in innovation. They need to be informing each other and that requires a continuous flow of information between those two realms.

0:13:09.6 Junior: Well, let's talk about the competitive implication because the innovation organization that we're running, we're building to go compete, right? So if we introduce competition, things become a little bit more interesting in my perspective. All else equal, the better aligned team wins. The better aligned organization wins in the competitive realm. If you're competing against an organization that's better aligned than you are, it's plausible that they could win with a worse product, or have a worse pricing scheme, or a worse whatever else, and win. Why? Because speed is important. And speed is a product of alignment, especially today with things as dynamic as they are, we need to move as quickly as possible. So how quickly can you turn your ship? If it takes a really, really long time and you never get true alignment, it's gonna be really difficult, especially in the competitive arena. And so I think that putting a competitive lens and talking about innovation is appropriate because it really has to do with the organization we're building for tomorrow. And if we can't do this well, we're not going to do that well, which means we're not going to innovate, which means we'll become irrelevant faster than we otherwise would.

0:14:30.2 Tim: I totally agree with that. It makes me think, Junior, that if your environment is dynamic... Well, the more dynamic your environment, the faster the alignment cycle has to be to keep you aligned. Right? So that cycle time is diminishing, right? There's a contraction in that because it's so dynamic, things are changing. And so we all need to understand where we are, what's happening, what decisions we've made so that we're rowing together.

0:15:04.6 Junior: The final assumption that we wanna make in the setup is that anyone can do alignment. And this is a piece of the conversation that I think is particularly interesting. If you think about what enables organizations to win, there are a lot of things. Many of them have to do with technical skill, with product, with things that are very difficult to replicate. One of the things that everyone has access to, but not many take advantage of is alignment. There are no big technical or skill barriers to alignment. So as far as competition goes, this is low-hanging fruit because there is no barrier. There's literally no barrier other than your will to take the time and energy to go and do it. And certainly, there's some skill involved, which we're going to relay today, which should give you everything you need to go and align a team. So Tim, what do you think about that assumption that anyone can do alignment? 

0:16:10.3 Tim: I think that they can, but I would issue a caveat a little bit. Reminds me of the former CEO at Procter and Gamble, AG Lafley. And I think what happened to him is that when you lead and manage a large, complex organization, reality tutors you to understand how fast you can fall into misalignment. And so one of the things that he said is that you need to use Sesame Street language to align and keep your organization aligned. And so my caveat is that you align your organization, your primary tool is communication and the language that you use, it needs to be simple and clear. It needs to be scalable. It needs to avoid... I would say it needs to have the ability to withstand damage in handling, to put it into some terms. It won't be distorted as it's communicated and moves around the organization. That makes sense? I do think that experience helps us understand how we need to communicate and the language that we need to use...

0:17:29.6 Junior: Yep.

0:17:30.4 Tim: And how important that is. Is that a fair point? 

0:17:33.0 Junior: That's absolutely a fair point. You'd rather ship a rock than a glass vase, right? It's highly likely that if you ship a rock, the rock will get to the doorstep in the same form that it left. The vase, you gotta be more careful. And so why not ship a rock? Be simpler. Okay. The complication. Why is alignment not the default? You start the article with a sentence that landed for a lot of people, and I'm going to read the introduction. "When a misaligned team succeeds, it's an accident." That's the sentence that resonated with a lot of people. "When a misaligned team succeeds, it's an accident. Without alignment, that is a shared understanding and commitment. Team members work at cross purposes and doom projects to failure. Unfortunately, it's an easy trap to fall into. When leaders simply assume their team is aligned or when they accept head-nodding and verbal confirmations as proxies for actual alignment, the risk of failure increases dramatically." So that's the introductory paragraph. And in that introductory paragraph, you talk about what you just mentioned, head-nodding, verbal confirmations.

0:18:49.5 Junior: People will do that when they're met with the flowery language and the complicated stuff because, "I don't know. Yeah, sure. Great. Yep. Are we are we good? Uh-huh." And then we leave the room and we get to it. So that is probably, would you say, the biggest failure pattern in misaligned teams is this assumptive alignment? We get the head nod and we go ahead? 

0:19:17.3 Tim: Yes. I think that's the fundamental flaw or error that most people commit is they make alignment assumptive and it's not. But we assume that people are aligned and we use proxy indicators like people nodding their heads or people saying, "Yes, we're onboard," or "Yes, we're on the same page," and then we go off and we do our thing. That is so dangerous.

0:19:49.4 Junior: Very dangerous.

0:19:50.4 Tim: And by the way, what did we say? We said alignment consists of two fundamental elements; number one, understanding, number two, commitment. So it is both intellectual on the understanding side and emotional on the commitment side. So what does that help us understand? It helps us understand that if we wait for other indications of performance, the way we measure performance, the metrics that we use, the KPIs that we use, whatever they may be, those are going to be lag indicators. They're going to come too late. And if there's a problem in those lag indicators, then that's going to tell us that we have an upstream problem in alignment. Well, the problem with that is we don't wanna catch that upstream problem in alignment, the misalignment. We don't wanna catch that downstream in these lag indicators or the metrics that we use. So this is where leadership becomes very quite interesting because we can't rely on those things. So how do you know that you're aligned? You cannot look at your metrics and assume that you're aligned. That's a problem right, Junior? 

0:21:07.7 Junior: Yeah. One of the light bulbs for me was the distinction between understanding and commitment. If you would have asked me previously, what's alignment, I probably would have given you an answer that had mostly to do with understanding. And if you think that that's what alignment is, what are you checking for? Understanding. And then it ends there. You don't ever move to checking for commitment. And so people may leave the room understanding what it is that we're going to do or understanding what the problem is or whatever it is that we're talking about, but you don't have commitment. And so that's one of the things that I think is most important that we're going to be talking about as well. So let's talk about an example of misalignment, Tim, that, to your point, showed up down the road, maybe a little bit farther down the chain than you would have liked.

0:22:09.2 Tim: Yeah.

0:22:10.0 Junior: Something that wasn't caught as early as it could have been. You talk in the article about your time in manufacturing and putting together a project team to increase throughput. Tell us about that.

0:22:22.8 Tim: Right. We were trying to increase throughput on our production line. And so we put a team together and we said, "Go do that. That's the focus. That's the goal." Not long after, they came back and they had done just that, and they had increased throughput by 9%. Problem was the yield had gone down by nearly 4%. That means that we had 4% additional waste, scrap, right? And so that increased our costs and it canceled out all of our gains. So I went back to talk to the team and said, "It's really nice that you increased throughput by 9%, but you also decreased our yield by 4% and that canceled out all of our gains." And what did they say to me? "Oh, well, but I thought we were focusing on throughput and I thought that's what you wanted." Those are famous words that still ring in my ears, Junior. "I thought that's what you wanted. So what's the problem here?"

0:23:30.1 Tim: The team, their overall, the net impact of that team increasing throughput but decreasing yield, the overall impact was a decrease in overall performance. Whose fault was that? Mine. My fault. Because I did not clarify objectives enough so that everyone understood, thorough understanding of acceptable trade-offs, right? Because in manufacturing, if you pull one lever, you're affecting a lot of other variables. You cannot increase throughput without affecting some other things. And so I learned from that experience that ambiguity was always my fault, and that that ambiguity could quickly compound into further misalignment. It's very interesting.

0:24:21.6 Tim: Misalignment compounds as you move down through the organization and that's exactly what happened in this case. And it was my fault because I started the ambiguity. I communicated out the ambiguity, and then we had unintended consequences that were not at all what I wanted. But it was my fault because we didn't have the alignment at the beginning.

0:24:47.8 Junior: Well, I appreciate you sharing that story and I appreciate you sharing ownership, taking ownership of the ambiguity and that's something we can all learn from is if there is ambiguity in the communication, it's ours to take and get rid of. Let's get into the five alignment questions. Here's where we're going to get practical. So we've set the table, if you will. We've helped explain what alignment is. It's shared understanding and shared commitment. And we've gone through the stakes. If we don't do alignment well, we're not going to execute well and we're not going to innovate well. So our organization is not going to be around very long if we don't do these things well. So how do we align? There are five questions that we need to ask and do so frequently.

0:25:37.6 Junior: And the first question we need to ask is what is your understanding of the project? Now, the words that we've chosen for all of these questions are deliberate. Very important. So think about, as we ask these questions, why we've used the language we have. Because there have been iterations to these questions and we found these to be the most effective. So question number one, what is your understanding of the project? So Tim, where does this question come from? Why is it number one? 

0:26:12.2 Tim: Well, first of all, it's a what question. And a what question is a question that transfers most of the critical thinking responsibility to the person or persons that you're speaking with and they have to think about that. They have to produce a response. And so it allows you to evaluate their thinking process, what they think and what they believe and what they understand. You cannot do that without first asking questions, and then asking a what question. And you certainly can't assume it. And so this is where you begin. Let's begin with a question about, what's your overall understanding? Because I need to know that. Now, all of this, this entire process, Junior, these five questions that we're going to review, they all rest on the assumption that your primary tool to gain and maintain alignment is dialogue. It's not your metrics, right? We just mentioned that metrics are downstream lag indicators. And if you rely on that, you will often find yourself severely misaligned. It's going to be too late.

0:27:29.9 Tim: So your upstream tool is dialogue and it relies on inquiry, specifically, these five questions. That's how you do it. Now, you might think, "Well, man, this is the way to create and maintain alignment? It seems messy. It seems overly interpersonal. It seems very subject to error, to misinterpretation." And you know what? You would be right. But can you show me a better way? We have not found a better way.

0:28:09.7 Junior: One of the things that I am fascinated by is blanket email that goes out from the comms team in a big organization about some massive fundamental change. And then there's no dialogue, and so the team assumes alignment, right? So the complexity and the messiness that Tim's talking about isn't solved through some one-way communication. It's just buried. You're turning a blind eye. It's there, but you won't have a chance to work through it if there's not dialogue involved in the process.

0:28:46.8 Tim: Well, that's the cascade, Junior. And that's one-way communication, top-down cascade. If we assume alignment based on a top-down cascade, we're in trouble already. We gotta go excavate the feedback, the understanding and the commitment based on the communication. That's only part of the job.

0:29:04.7 Junior: Yeah. And it's difficult because it takes time and energy.

0:29:07.8 Tim: It is.

0:29:08.0 Junior: And so we don't want to ignore that and say, "Well, this is equally easy." No, no, it's not. It's not an easy thing to do, but it's worth the difficulty. Okay. So that is question number one. You'll notice that what we're doing in number one is checking understanding. We talked about alignment as understanding and commitment. The first thing we check is understanding because you can't commit to something you don't understand. So there is sequence here, which is why we start with this first question. Then we move to number two.

0:29:37.2 Junior: Number two is one of my favorites. What concerns do you have? Now, we've worded this one very intentionally, and we have not given people the opportunity to say no, and we haven't framed the question in a way that makes that the easiest option. Do you have any concerns? That would be a way that many people would word this question. We've instead said, what concerns do you have? It's assumptive. We're not gonna ask you if you have any concerns. We're going to assume that there are concerns. So let's go ahead and put them on the table so that we can begin our discussion immediately. So Tim, what about question number two? What are your thoughts? 

0:30:18.6 Tim: Well, I think it's true. We don't assume that people... They always have concerns. It's a given. I think an early version of this question, Junior, was that yes/no question, "Do you have any concerns?" back when we were formulating these questions originally. But that's just not helpful. That's a binary yes/no question. And what we very quickly came to understand is that people always have concerns, but they often don't feel willing or able to express those concerns. But those concerns represent the critical feedback that you need to be able to assess alignment and do something about it. If you don't surface the concerns, then the misalignment can compound, as we talked about, and you don't know that that's happening because you never surfaced the concerns. So you don't have any ability to assess that or correct that.

0:31:28.0 Junior: Think about being on the receiving end of the question, "Do you have any concerns?" We've all been on the receiving end of this question. We're probably asked pretty frequently. What goes through your head when you're asked this question? Let's assume that you have a concern. Do you immediately voice your concern? Maybe not. Depends on your personality, I suppose. But for most of us, we probably don't immediately raise our hand and say, "Yep, this is my concern." We think, "Well, I do have a concern, but is it a reasonable concern? Do other people have this concern? Would a normal person raise their hand and speak out?" Are there going to be any consequences? The way they worded this question means that some people may not have concerns, so maybe I'm weird because I do, and so on and so forth. And we do these mental gymnastics and most of the time, those gymnastics end with us saying nothing. And we say, "No, all good," right? 

0:32:26.3 Tim: I think the question, Junior, does a couple of things. First of all, it validates you as a human being and as a member of the team and as part of this effort. And number two, it gives you... In that validation, it gives you permission...

0:32:42.7 Junior: Exactly.

0:32:44.1 Tim: To express your concerns, in fact, maybe even beyond permission to the expectation that you will. And if you think about it, maintaining alignment can only be based on early intervention, not late intervention. If it's late, you're already misaligned. So the only way to maintain it is that you have to identify concerns, problems, issues, questions at the earliest possible opportunity, and then address those. And in doing that, you're able to maintain alignment. So think about how that works. Early intervention maintains alignment. There's no other way.

0:33:29.4 Junior: That's question number two, "What concerns do you have?" Number three, "How do you see your role in this?" That's question number three. How do you see your role in this? So the first two questions were what questions. Now we've moved to a how question, which does the same thing. It transfers the critical thinking. How do you see your role in this? When team members don't have a clear understanding of how their specific role contributes to whatever it is we're talking about, they're going to get off-track or they're gonna disengage completely. They're gonna do something different than what we're talking about or they're not going to care at all. And it will be deaf ears. So why this question and why the third question? Why now? How do you see your role in this? What do you think, Tim? 

0:34:24.3 Tim: There are several aspects to this question that make it critical. One is that, you just alluded to this, you cannot assume role clarity. But you may say, "Well, wait a second. We just talked about this last month when we all got together, or last sprint, or whenever it was that we came together, and we had role clarity." Okay, fine. But you're in a dynamic environment, so you can't assume that that role clarity will continue.

0:34:56.4 Tim: So you have to continue to verify that role clarity. That's the intellectual side. That is the shared understanding of alignment. Let's remind ourselves that we're not talking to third party bystanders. We're talking to people that are participants in what we're doing. What does that mean? That means they're invested. They have a vested interest in everything that we're doing. So there's an intellectual interest. There's an emotional interest. There's a personal interest. This is all personalized. This is part of your life if you're a member of the team. And so if I ask you, "How do you see your role in this?" again, I'm affirming you as a human being. I'm validating your participation in your role. And then we can get into any ambiguities or questions or confusion that may be attached to the way that you see your role. And let's not forget that as we go along, things are going to change, right? So project requirements might change. Conditions might change. Objectives might change. A lot of things could change. And so those changes reverberate down throughout the team or the organization. You gotta address those things.

0:36:13.0 Junior: Part of what I love about these questions is everything that's implicit in the question. And you mentioned acknowledging their participation, acknowledging their humanity. By asking this question, we're implying that they have a role in this, right? How do you see your role in this? Well, you have one. So how do you see it? We believe that this has to do with you. And so I think that that is fantastic. You're not going to get... I've never had someone say, "Well, it has nothing to do with me," right? Okay, well, we can work through that. But you're not gonna get that answer to this question most of the time because you're implying that they have something to do with it, right? 

0:36:54.9 Tim: One more comment on this question, Junior. Think about the psychological side of this. These are all questions. What if the team leader is trying to create and maintain alignment based on communicating and telling, right? And you're on the receiving end of this over and over again. What happens over time? I'm on the receiving end of being told, "This is what we're doing. This is what you need to do. Go do it." Over time, I become passive. Over time, I stop caring. Over time, I begin to disengage. Over time, I don't see the importance of my contribution. Over time, I am not being acknowledged. I'm not being validated as part of this. My value is not being affirmed as part of this. That's the psychological side of alignment. I personally need to be aligned. It's not that just the work is aligned, but I'm aligned with the project, with the scope, with the business requirements, with the objectives. I have to be attached. That's what this does.

0:38:16.0 Junior: It's one of the reasons I've noticed that the Alignment channel, the Slack channel that we have, is only so useful. As it pertains to larger issues, those need to be done where dialogue is invited in an all-hands scenario if it has to do with everyone or in a functional heads meeting or in a specific department because you're not gonna be able to go through each of these questions. You're not going to have the dialogue in that sort of a forum. And so that Alignment channel is very, very useful for these small little changes, informational stuff. But for me, I mean, how many Slack notifications do I get in a day? More than one. And if all we try to do is alignment through just that channel, it's not going to work. And part of that, "How do you see your role in this?", some of the decisions that we make and some of the things around which we need to align are cross-functional.

0:39:14.7 Junior: And so it's a helpful invitation, when we're asking this question, to invite the person we're talking to or the people who we're talking to, to think above their role, to think outside their role, to work at this intersection of functions. We might have a project that has to do with marketing and sales, or design and product. How can a designer think in a way that a developer might think in order to ask certain questions or make certain decisions? How might sales be affected by marketing and vice-versa? If we don't invite that type of participation, invite them to work above their role, we may not get that type of participation. We probably won't. In which case, a lot of the alignment will go out the window because we won't understand the cross-functional implications of the decisions we're making.

0:40:08.8 Tim: It's a really good point. So then alignment means that you need to move beyond the narrow constraints of your role and move out into the intersections.

0:40:21.1 Tim: I see this every day, and I think that the point can't be overstated. Because if we just go in our own direction and we're siloed and we move forward based on the information we have at hand, and we ignore the people to the left and right of us, we're going to become misaligned very, very, very fast. Because things are constantly changing. And if you don't take it into consideration the outcome of the person next to you wants and the incentives that they have and the way that they might see the world, if you don't have that conversation constantly, then you're gonna get off-track and you're going to probably hurt their objective. You might be working at odds, which is the last thing we want. We wanna be as efficient as possible. We need to be in lockstep.

0:41:07.2 Tim: So Junior, here's a question for our listeners then, based on what you just said. What that means is that siloing by definition is reflex misalignment. So a question for our listeners could be, to what extent, as you look around, are you siloed in your organization? Do you have people doing their thing, throwing it over the wall to the next step in the process? So the siloing is reflecting that misalignment. That's a question that we can ask. And that's something that we can assess, we can observe. So that's a great diagnostic.

0:41:49.1 Junior: Okay. We got two more questions for you. We've gone through the first three. The fourth, "What do you need?" Now, again, we have a what question. So this question requires the person on the other side to think through a whole bunch of implications, personal, tactical, cultural, strategic of the change, and then diagnose the resource necessary to meet the objective. So what do you need? It implies that I can get you what you need, or at least I care about what you need. And so resource is one of the most touchy things that I see in alignment many times. You're asking me to do this thing, and then you're telling me to go on my way, but there's a whole bunch of stuff that I need in order for me to do this.

0:42:39.9 Junior: I might need money. I might need time. I might need another team member to help. I might need... And it may not even be a resource thing. I may even need more clarity at this point, right? I still am not entirely sure I need more definition around the requirements. I need another week. I need whatever. It is such an excellent opportunity for the person to come with whatever else there might be that would help them achieve the objective.

0:43:12.8 Tim: I think Junior, the power in the question is that when someone responds to this question of what you need, they are going to reflect back to you their sense of priority.

0:43:24.0 Junior: Yeah.

0:43:25.2 Tim: Right? What is weighted the most, down to what is weighted less than that, and also the sequence, the order of operations. And then you get to inspect that, evaluate that, examine that and say, "Yeah, that's right. That's my understanding too. We are aligned, or not."

0:43:44.1 Junior: And it's a check on reasonability. Because you as a leader only have so much information when you're choosing to go a certain direction. And you may have alignment up to this question when someone comes back and says, "Well, I'm gonna need this, this, this, and this, and this, and this would also have to be true." And you as a leader may have not considered the costs or some of the things that would be necessary in order to actually achieve what you wanted at the outset. So you might have to come back to terms with the actual cost and say, "Are we willing to pay the price on this particular thing? Maybe we need to go back to the drawing board. Maybe we need to re-scope. Maybe we need to go in a different direction." And it may have you nick something all together. And so I think that that... This check on reasonability that this question provides is essential because it may tell us that we're off-track or our expectations or assumptions were wrong.

0:44:43.8 Tim: How many times, if you ask someone, would they say, "I don't need anything. See you later"? 

0:44:50.0 Junior: Yeah. "We're fine. We're good."

0:44:51.3 Tim: Uh-huh.

0:44:53.5 Junior: Almost never.

0:44:53.9 Tim: So what it does is it invites another round of analysis. And almost everyone I know is going to pause, reflect again, go through everything again, and then try to produce a thoughtful response. And then once that's out there and we can both see it, then we can evaluate the degree of alignment or misalignment. It works.

0:45:23.0 Junior: Excellent. Last question, "How would you describe your current commitment to the project?" This is the last question. Now, this is an invitation, again, how, to share concerns, to share the commitment level, because we're not asking, do you support this? Do you commit to working on this project? Do you commit to achieving the objectives we've laid out? 

0:45:50.9 Tim: This is not the Jeff Bezos' disagree and commit. This is getting at something... This is getting an alignment that goes deeper than that.

0:46:01.1 Junior: Yeah, and it may result in a disagree and commit, but at least we'll have a conversation about the first part, right? 

0:46:07.5 Tim: That's right. We noticed, Junior, that if you look at the five questions, the bookend questions, the first question is based on your shared understanding, the last question is based on your shared commitment. Those are the bookends, the intellectual side and then the emotional, psychological side at the end. Yep.

0:46:27.0 Junior: Because if we go through the four, "What's your understanding of the project? We've worked through that. Now I understand. What concerns do I have? Okay, we worked through those. Number three, now I understand my role. I see what I have to do with this particular thing. Number four, we've addressed all of my resources." And so now on the receiving end, I'm in a very reasonable position to either commit or not. And if all four of those things check out and I understand them, I'm in a great position to be able to say, "Yep, thumbs up. Ready to go. Absolutely, my commitment is there and we're good." Right? 

0:47:10.3 Tim: That's right.

0:47:10.9 Junior: And so that's why it has to be the last question by nature.

0:47:15.3 Tim: This is the final check and the final opportunity for someone to say, "I'm worried about this," or "I don't agree with this," or anything, anything at all. What do you wanna share in terms of a caveat or a contingency, or a dependency, or a concern, or a limitation? Now is the time. We've gone through everything. It's been dialogue. It's been inquiry. And you've been validated in the process. You've been respected in the process. So is there something missing? 

0:47:53.9 Junior: And it also helps on the other side of the equation when we get to accountability, not as a gotcha, but if you have someone who works all the way through these five questions they commit, now we have the ability to go back after the fact and say, let's say that there was less than desirable performance, "Okay, what happened? We understood and we committed. So here we are." Now we have something to talk about. If we don't and we have poor performance and we didn't align on the front end, then what can the person say? "It was unreasonable. I didn't have the resources that I needed," or "I didn't even know that it was that important," or "I had a whole bunch of other stuff I needed to do."

0:48:36.3 Junior: And all of those things might be true. And so it puts everybody in a better position to go through these questions, to ask and answer them, to work our way through linearly, to come out the end and have shared understanding and commitment. If we do this well, everything else will be easier. Everything else will be easier. Now, I do want to say, once again, that this is not an easy thing to do. It's simple, it's not easy, because we have a whole bunch of stuff to do as leaders and this takes time. And there are always things vying for our time.

0:49:15.4 Junior: There will be occasions where the stakes are high, margin for error is low, time is of the essence and we need to move. We may not have time to go through every last one of these things the way that we would love to. We may not reach unanimity. And that's not necessarily the objective. So times and seasons will dictate the way that we apply these, but in a best case scenario, and probably in more scenarios than we would like to admit, we should use these five questions to work through the alignment that we so desperately need. So continuous intervention is a point that you also made, Tim, and I would love to conclude with that point. This is something that's ongoing, right? You don't just ask these five questions once as they pertain to a project and then that's it. So help us understand a little bit more about continuous intervention, and then we'll wrap up.

0:50:13.8 Tim: Well, it's simply based on the premise Junior, that misalignment is the natural process. If you let things go and just carry on, then you're going to find yourself in a state of increasing misalignments. The natural process of continuous intervention has to be the remedy for that. And that is also continuous. So continuous misalignment requires continuous intervention to maintain alignment. That's how it goes.

0:50:43.7 Junior: So the five questions. What is your understanding of the project? What concerns do you have? How do you see your role in this? What do you need? How would you describe your commitment to the project? You do those five questions, you work your way through them, you'll be well on your way. Thank you everyone for your time and your attention today. We appreciate your listenership very much. If you like today's episode, leave us a like, a review and share it with someone who you think might also find it valuable. We will see you next episode. Bye-bye, everyone.

[music]

0:51:23.7 Freddy: Hey, Culture By Design listeners. This is the end of today's episode. You can find all the important links from today's episode at leaderfactor.com/podcast. And if you found today's episode helpful and useful in any way, please share it with a friend and leave a review. If you'd like to learn more about Leader Factor and what we do, then please visit us at leaderfactor.com. Lastly, if you'd like to give any feedback to the Culture By Design podcast, or even request a topic from Tim and Junior, then reach out to us at info@leaderfactor.com, or find and tag us on LinkedIn. Thanks again for listening and making culture something you do by design, not by default.

[music]

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Episode Transcript

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