Alignment – start here

Alignment – that moment when you sense which way you are pointing relative to other people and things – is hugely important to projects. Yet organisations too often go straight past that moment and plunge on into the ‘real work’. What happens is that the project and its team members get lost. They lose connection with each other and they lose direction in the project.

This is a post about Alignment and how it can work on two axes. One is cognitive and one is wayfinding. Both are needed in successful projects.

Alignment — in thinking

Making the wrong thing or making the wrong decision happens more than most organisations want to say.

Government departments, like the CIA, have made catastrophic decisions because they only employed and valued people who were had similar backgrounds and epistemologies. 9/11 was invisible to the white men who graduated from Harvard. Until it happened.

That is a problem of Convergent Thinking. Same people, same experiences, same ways of thinking. In these places, alignment is not needed because everyone is pointing the same way already.

However, in codesign and human-centered design, the groups should be diverse and the individuals divergent. Alignment is needed to prepare people with differing life experiences to think, talk and work together.

Being explicit about alignment at the start of a project is time well spent. Being overt about how diversity and divergence are important matters. It is very easy for organisations to slowly crush difference under the ideal of convergence. Common knowledge can be created from many stakeholders and their lived experiences but then pruned down to the Normal that the organisation’s managers are comfortable with.

Alignment is a moment of recognition to enable a project lifespan of respect.

Alignment — in wayfinding

Think about how you have got lost in different places. There is that sense of getting lost because you lost concentration for a moment and took a wrong turn. Yet there is alse that sense of being lost because you never quite understood where you started. The standard example is coming out of a subway station in a city and not being sure which way you are facing. All your wayfinding choices after that point can go wrong: a cascading sense of being lost.

That is failure to have alignment in wayfinding.

When a project starts without stopping to assess its sense of alignment then it is open to failure. It will fail because it keeps circling back on itself. It will fail because it keeps getting lost.

Alignment at the start of a project provides a rooted sense of being across the stakeholders. They may not share exactly the same perception of place but they do share a sense of starting together and pointing in the same direction (shared goals or OKR perhaps).

It is very easy to go straight into ideas of maps and touchpoints before establishing alignment. Yet, without alignment, people may not share the same meaning or utility in maps and touchpoints.

Alignment — to end

There was a post lately about how organisations are very keen on offering teams permission to move fast and break things. However, that is terrible behaviour if you want to maintain any sense of where you are and where you are going.

One of the major problems with people getting lost is that they do not stop. The bias is is to keep moving and to keep going forward.

The best advice on Not Getting Lost is:

  • Pay attention to places as you go along
  • If you feel lost then stop and retrace your steps until you know where you are

Stop and go back is good advice but it presumes you had a clear starting point. Alignment is explicitly about making and marking that point.

To get to the end of the project journey, you need to start well together. That is what alignment in thinking and wayfinding offers.

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Alastair Somerville

Alastair Somerville

Sensory Design Consultant, usability researcher and workshop facilitator. www.linkedin.com/in/alastair-somerville-b48b368 Twitter @acuity_design & @visceralUX