What is Team Alignment? The Psycholinguistic Essentials of Highly Effective Teamwork

By Stefano Mastrogiacomo

Book excerpt adapted by Matthew Woodward

Unfortunately like many of us, it’s likely you’ve had the unpleasant experience of working in a misaligned team. These experiences are often characterized by a lack of progress, create unbearable delays delays as team members remain stuck in operational issues. 

I've been helping teams of all sizes work together over the last 20-years and here are some of the key signs, symptoms and consequences of misalignment I’ve witnessed first-hand:

  • It’s unclear who does what
  • Invaluable time is lost in endless meetings
  • Work is delivered way too slowly
  • Priorities keep changing and no one can figure out why
  • Projects often duplicate and overlap
  • Team members work in silos
  • A lot of work is done with poor results and little impact

The biggest pain of misalignment is undoubtedly a bad effort / impact ratio. Teams invest a lot of effort for low impact. Work is delivered but eventually no one is happy with the result, and things don't change. Significant energy and resources are lost as the consequence of a poor division of labor and a poor integration of the individual parts, not because people didn't work hard. 


So What Exactly Is Team Alignment?

Simply put, team alignment is the process that helps team members work in a coordinated way. Coordination being defined as the harmonious functioning of parts. For us humans, this alignment process is achieved through communication

Aligning is communicating. 

 

Team alignment sequence

 

Anything teams achieve successfully, from having a party to building an airplane, is a by-product of successful communication and coordination. Team members must communicate constantly in order to synchronize with each other both before, during and after the project to align their individual contributions and successfully achieve their joint mission. In other words, it takes coordination to work together, but that in itself takes communication. 

To work together, we have to communicate about working together.

(Clark and Henetz, 2014).

To communicate effectively means to maintain a good level of common ground in the team. A teams’ common ground is the sum of what everyone knows that the others know too (Clark, 1996).

For example, if Ann knows that Bob has agreed to fix a software bug before tomorrow noon, and Bob knows that Ann knows, that information is part of Ann’s and Bob’s common ground. If only Bob knows and Ann doesn’t know, then ‘fixing the bug before noon’ is not part of their common ground.

 

THE CONCEPT OF COMMON GROUND

Synonyms: common knowledge, mutual understanding, and shared understanding

All know something, and also know that all the others know.

- A knows X

- B knows X

- A and B know that they both know X

(De Freitas and al., 2019)

Example

- Ann knows that there is a man walking in the street

- Bob knows that there is a man walking in the street

- Ann and Bob both know that they know it

 

Common ground is an important enablers of team success. When there is enough common ground among team members, people can predict one another’s actions successfully because they share the same information. Individual contributions stay aligned and the team operates more harmoniously.

On the other hand, you can expect only poor results from a team with a low common ground. Participants run into unavoidable execution problems due to perception gap. The lack of shared information makes participants wrongly predict each other’s actions and the collaboration goes off track.

 

Do All Communication Channels Have the Same Impact on Team Alignment?

Not all communication channels have the same impact on common ground creation (Clark and Brennan, 1991). Some are more efficient than others. To be more precise, they convey a lot more information, faster and give greater opportunities to validate that the information is mutually shared.

Communication effectiveness of various media types

(Adapted from Media Richness Theory, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Media_ richness_theory)

 

 

Dialog, or face-to-face conversation remains the most effective ‘technology’ by far, followed by videoconferencing - which makes great progress in lowering the distance barrier and developing immersive experiences.

Task forces, war rooms and other crisis units still illustrate the importance of in-person meetings when extreme efficiency is needed. Why? Because face-to-face helps create common ground more efficiently, hence more and faster collective power.

All the other communication channels present communication obstacles compared to face-to-face interaction – for example, the lack of nonverbal and contextual information, poor signal, delays, interruptions or slow feedback (Clark and Brennan, 1991). These obstacles can considerably reduce our ability to build common ground and hence slow down the activation of our team's super-powers. 

 

Get the Most Out of Each Communication Channel

A team’s common ground is metaphorically speaking like a hot air balloon: the basket is the project, the team the passengers, and the balloon is the common ground. For the project to take off, more energy is required at the beginning to inflate the balloon (the common ground). Synchronous communication channels are excellent for that: They let more information go through and more possibilities to repair misunderstandings in real time.

Once in flight, small corrections are enough to fly on to the destination. Asynchronous communication channels are perfect for that and provide more work flexibility for each participant.

 

Synchronous Communication

Prefer face-to-face, video conference, and conference calls when the team’s common ground needs a strong boost, for example when:

  • Initiating new activities and projects
  • Solving complex problems
  • Performing creative tasks
  • Working with new teams

 

Asynchronous Communication

Use email, chat rooms, and other asynchronous media for incremental updates such as:

  • Notifying about changes
  • Co-editing documents
  • Sharing updates and status reports
  • Working with long-established teams

 

I do not recommend to start new projects with new teams using asynchronous channels only. To date, I haven't met a team capable of inflating the hot air balloon with matches. Asynchronous channels don't offer the level of bandwidth needed to align new teams successfully. When this happens, the project suffers from the very beginning to an unlikely end.


Tools to Achieve High Performance Teamwork

High-Impact Tools for Teams present 2 alignment tools specifically designed to boost the common ground of project teams.

The Team Alignment Map (TAM) to rapidly align on the team mission, the objectives to be achieved and by whom, and reduce risks. 

The Team Contract to negotiate and establish team behaviors and rules, both in general or temporarily.

 

These structured discussions inflate the hot air ballon with power and the team aligns:  common ground is established, participants become more confident and more efficient together for a greater impact.

  

 

 

Credits

Illustrations by Severine Assous.

Illustrissimo.fr

 

References

Clark, H. H. (1996). Using language. Cambridge University Press

Clark, H. H., & Brennan, S. E. (1991). Grounding in Communication

Clark, H. H., & Henetz, T. (2014). Working together. In The Oxford handbook of language and social psychology (p. 85). Oxford University Press, USA.

J. De Freitas, K. Thomas, P. DeScioli, and S. Pinker. "Common Knowledge, Coordination, and Strategic Mentalizing in Human Social Life," Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 116, no. 28 (2019): 13751–13758.

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