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On the surface, everyone at a company is working together to accomplish a goal. But in reality, we’re emotional beings with different motives, incentives, and interests—so getting your team aligned requires some work.
It’s all about asking: what should we accomplish and why? But getting aligned isn’t something you do once, or even once in a while. It’s a way of working that requires consistent deliberation. Here, I’ll walk through the five stages of alignment that we follow at our design innovation studio, 3drops.
Stage 1: Auditing
At 3drops, we audit the business every quarter, reviewing our data to get a feel for how the business is doing and what needs to be improved. Since we’re in the client service business, cash flow is usually the number we monitor most closely. But recently, I’ve been paying extra attention to our marketing numbers, including things like website visits and newsletter subscribers. We export all the important data from different tools and collate them into a document, so we can review different data points in context and pinpoint the areas that need to be addressed.
Auditing is so important for alignment for two reasons:
It keeps the focus on data. Making data-informed decisions removes as much subjectivity as possible (you always need a human touch, of course). The data tells a story, and we can decide what to do for you in future based on that.
It gives us something to point to when getting buy-in from the rest of the team. It helps everyone understand why something should be worked on, which then helps with prioritization within the broader goals.
Stage 2: Planning
Planning is about setting goals. At 3drops, we set small goals because we find they’re easier for everyone to rally behind. Big goals, especially if they lean heavily on a specific aspect of the business, can cause unnecessary pressure on one or two people, which can be alienating.
Once the goals are in place, we outline the tasks and deliverables needed to reach that goal. We do all our planning in a tool we built in-house called Roadmap, which is sprint-based project management for designers. Here’s an example of my week in Roadmap.
Roadmap is built around a timeline view, which makes it easy to plan my working schedule with a weekly, monthly, or quarterly overview. I’m also able to get a sense of what everyone else is working on by viewing their schedule.
Regardless of the tool you use, this transparency in planning is key in finding alignment. If everyone knows what everyone else is working on, you’re less likely to have people working on redundant—or worse, conflicting—tasks.
Stage 3: Estimating
Planning is one thing—but correctly estimating how long those tasks will take is another. Humans aren’t great at estimating time, but you need to get it right or risk misalignment: if I tell the team I plan to get 10 things done this week and only manage to get to four of them, then straight away, I’m messing up everyone else’s plans as well.
Creating a culture of certainty—this will get done by this date—builds momentum and allows everyone to make plans around each other without worrying about blockers. I recommend using a tool that allows you to visualize your workload, so you can get a better sense of if you’ve committed to too much (or too little). For example, in Roadmap, longer tasks take up more space on the screen, so it’s easy for me to know when I have too much on my plate.
There are lots of ways to learn how to better estimate time, and I recommend working on this skill because it’s central to keeping a team aligned. I use historical data, making a note of which tasks took me longer than I thought, so I can get better at predicting the length of a given task.
Stage 4: Delivering
Working transparently is just as important as planning transparently. It removes guesswork and assumptions. One thing we’ve recently incorporated that’s working well for us: no private messages in Slack. Everything is done in a public channel for everyone to see. Conversations are information-rich, and everyone deserves to have access. The fewer the silos, the more aligned we stay.
To help us work more transparently, we share daily updates on Slack. This allows everyone to follow along with people’s progress and helps with accountability. Here’s what our asynchronous standup posts look like.
Marketing: Started working on the new blog post (Link to document)
Design: Continuing working on the designs for “Project” (Link)
Marketing: Continuing working on the new blog post, aiming to wrap it tomorrow.
Design: Starting the “project.” @Name, is the brief ready?
“Default to transparency” is one of Zapier’s core values. But transparency has its limits.
We’ve also developed a working rhythm by dividing the week into two parts. During the first half of the week (Monday to Wednesday), we focus on meaningful work that ties into reaching our specific goals. For the remaining two days (Thursday and Friday), we focus on smaller tasks and general upkeep. Adding this structure to our week creates a sense of predictability: everyone instinctively knows what everyone else is working on. Especially in remote work, this feeling of alignment is crucial.
Stage 5: Reviewing
Friday is the most important day in the week for us: it’s when we get realigned.
No matter how well we estimate time or plan our weeks, things happen. So we carve time out of each week to recalibrate: we have a team meeting to share what we did and what we’re looking to do for you in future week. It allows us to share our broad-strokes progress while also inviting others to course-correct our actions if needed. We give each other permission to question what we’re doing and ask if it’s driving real impact.
When you first work toward getting your team aligned, it might make sense to introduce tight feedback loops, where you’re in much more consistent contact. For example, we used to have daily morning meetings to talk about the day, but now that we’re more aligned, we’ve cut back. I’d recommend experimenting to find what works best for your team.
The other way we review our work is a little less glamorous, but it’s equally as important: documentation. When you document something, you create a record that can be accessed by anybody on the team. I’ve recently started to document my week by creating a little report that shares the accomplishments, concerns, and lessons from that week. It’s a period of self-reflection to be sure that what I’m doing is aligned with the goals we set.
The Zapier team writes Friday updates to help with prioritization and accountability. Read more about how it helps us succeed with remote work.
Allow things to evolve
This process is always evolving. We treat our company handbook like a living document—it’s written in bullet points, which keeps us less attached to it and more likely to make necessary changes. It’s a reflection of how we work today.
Getting aligned is a collaborative effort, and it requires bringing people together. Projects change, goals change, people change—and businesses change. At 3drops, we’re always open to that change, as long as we’re all aligned.
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