Alignment Should be the Starting Point, Not the Outcome

How many of the meetings you attend are designed just to pass information from one person to another? How many emails don’t try to achieve anything more than broadcasting information? If most of our communication is designed to achieve alignment, we’re doing something wrong. 

When the goal of communication is “to align,” at least some participants will perceive it as an overhead. The perceived value of such a meeting diminishes. When I read an email that doesn’t include or trigger new insights, I feel I wasted my time. When most of our communication is designed for nothing more than alignment, it becomes ineffective because it feels like we need to continually invest in everyone being on the same page instead of doing actual work. 

I’m not downplaying alignment. Whenever two or more people create something together, they’d better be aligned on what they are trying to achieve. But the important word here is “creating,” or, as I prefer to call it, co-creating. Any act of professional communication must help us move toward some predefined goal. Communication must help us progress. As crucial as alignment is, it won’t move the team forward. At best, it could bring some people closer to where the others are. 

To address this problem, we need to broaden the scope a bit. Instead of focusing on a single email or meeting, we should consider communication flows. A communication flow is a series of communication activities designed to achieve a goal: the initiative. The initiative must be defined as an action that brings us one step closer to our destination: our mission. “To align” is not a strong enough initiative because it doesn’t create progress, but it could be a helpful preliminary step.

Instead of having a status meeting with the goal “to align,” define a real initiative such as “to mitigate a risk” or “to refine the plan.” Next, identify the people who can help you realize this initiative — the team that can actively contribute to achieving this target. Only after you identify your partners in this conversation can you consider if some of them are missing some preliminary information or context for the discussion to be effective. If this is the case, starting the flow with an alignment step is a good idea, but it will be limited to the people who need it. 

If too many communication flows require alignment first, it could indicate a deeper issue. Effective teams create a setup that allows for seamless alignment at all times. They are aligned thanks to accessible information that doesn’t have to be pushed; it can be pulled as needed by the team. This, together with a shared and well-understood mission, can eliminate most interactions designed solely for alignment.

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