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How to use Alignment to Build a Top Performing Design Team

How to use Alignment to Build a Top Performing Design Team

  • Design Thinking /
  • Leadership /
  • Podcast /

The topic of organizational alignment is becoming increasingly important, especially as traditional workplaces are disrupted during COVID-19. People are often considered the most important part of a business. But not nearly enough time is spent aligning those people and helping them understand what their contributions mean. Jonathon Hensley spoke with Tony Daussat on the Experience Design podcast, and dove into what alignment and agility mean for UX, product, industrial and service design teams.


How do you evaluate if a team is aligned or not?

“What I start with is just looking at what I would consider the foundation. I’m looking for four parts of alignment. First is team alignment. That deals with building alignment across all the unique disciplines that are working on that product or that digital experience, and really making sure that they’re focused on solving the same problem. That starts with something that’s really fundamental, that is a really powerful advantage for the right organization that knows how to apply it: do we have a common language? And most importantly, do we have a shared understanding of that language? 

Every industry, every company has a shorthand, a way of talking about things. All the little acronyms they love to use. And I think as designers, we see people talking about wanting to be customer centric. And then you see organizations saying: “We’re now customer centric, we’re going to develop customer centered products. We’re going to apply design thinking, we’re going to be agile in the way that we work.” Most people don’t fully engage in that and are really just trying to do faster Waterfall. And what ends up happening is they’re missing the opportunity to really say: “When you talk about customer experience, what does that mean to you?” When you say being customer centric, what does that mean? Tell me what that means. That little simple question. This is transformative in an organization when you’re trying to build alignment, because it helps you understand things. 

We want to understand, does everybody have a shared understanding of the vision of the company? Where are they trying to take the product? The problem that the product solves? The outcome that they want for the user, and the outcome they want for the business? And how are they going to measure that? If you don’t have that foundation, you can’t align all the different disciplines, and especially all the cross functional teams you need to collaborate with to move that forward. And one of the biggest misses we see all the time is when there are incredible visions for a product, but they are not anchored to the mission of the company. How do I get senior leadership on board when I’m trying to manage expectations and move something forward? How do I go out there into the world and do this research to engage with customers without knowing that things are anchored. It’s not just open space, let’s innovate. And let’s explore what happens. That happens in incubators in these smaller teams in big organizations. But we have to have some level of focus. It’s empowering. It’s not limiting. It allows us to ask better questions when we’re developing products.”


How do you get true collaboration?

“One part is alignment, and the other one is trust. Steven M. R. Covey, who wrote the book The Speed of Trust, illustrates this beautifully. You can coordinate with anybody. So you meet somebody, you’re new to a team, whether you like them or not, it doesn’t matter. You can coordinate with them. You can organize a calendar, schedule a meeting. But when you start thinking about really problem solving, it goes back to building that trust. And that trust comes from things like: Do we have a shared understanding of being user centered? Do we understand who we talk about when referring to the customer? Are we thinking about the same person? Do we understand the problem in the same way? All these allow us to accelerate collaboration. 

Collaboration is meant to accelerate problem solving, so we can get to a better outcome. And there are a lot of times the foundation for that is missing. True collaboration requires us to develop trust, which means we have to individually and as organizations invest into building trust. One of the key things we can do to help is to work on building alignment. If you and I look at things the same way, or we understand the problem, I now have an inherent trust in you. I can now tap into your skills and your expertise. And I can pivot because I know we have that foundation to work from. There are great collaboration tools which are enablers, but they are not the essence of collaboration between people that unlock critical thinking and different points of view that allow us to design great things. 

The one thing I don’t want to let go of, because I think it’s really important, is that collaboration is also built most effectively on a learning culture. A culture that is willing to learn sees that iteration is opportunity. When people are rushing to deliverables versus outcomes, it’s almost like trying to operate with one arm tied behind your back. You are closing the opportunity space of what’s possible and how to collaborate, because it’s more important to get it done than it is to make an impact. And so that’s something that I think every organization really has to take a hard look at.”

Listen to the entire podcast on Spotify:




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