Strategic alignment in a remote world

We already have great ways to keep teams aligned in our remote work environments

With most of us working from home since March 2020, we still find ourselves adjusting to the realities of remote work. The challenges are known — the Zoom fatigue, the trials and tribulations of homeschooling, and the blurring lines between home and work life. It can be hard enough as it is, never mind having some peace of mind in knowing our teams are getting the direction they need. Are your teams pulling in the same direction around your strategic plan? This was already hard enough to do when we were colocated with our teams, so in a remote setting, it can feel downright daunting to stay on top of.

Remote work isn't going away any time soon, and even as we eventually return to the office, we'll see more hybrid work environments. Dealing with remote teams is here to stay. The playbooks of yesterday will no longer suffice in our evolving reality — though I'd argue they weren't doing much for us before the pandemic either.

Strategic alignment ensures you are able to realize the potential of your teams that is greater than the sum of its parts. We know it matters, but it is hard to achieve. Without it, confusion reigns — very smart, capable people start to feel incompetent as they spend more time fighting opposing forces than doing great work in pursuit of accomplishing meaningful goals. Simply put, without it we're not giving our teams the environment they need to do their best work.

How have we tried to accomplish this alignment in the past? Some of us rely on the tear-jerking strategy document emailed out to the team, to be discussed over a protein-bar-fuelled lunch hour. You know the one:


Please find attached next year's final strategy document to be discussed Friday at noon. Be prepared to present your plans to deliver on this.

Attachment: 2021_CorpBusinessPlan_Final_Final2_FINAL3_FINALFINAL.doc

Supreme Leader

There is nothing wrong with wanting to organize and clarify your thoughts in written form, but in terms of aligning people, this simply isn't enough. There are a few problems with this approach: 1. chances are, we're not all very good writers, so sharing complex ideas in written words might not do the job in explaining our thoughts properly; 2. it is a bombardment of information that is hard to process at once — the author may know the content intimately, but the reader rarely gets to that point (if they read it at all); 3. we are still unfortunately in a place where collaboration centred around written documents is a pain in the ass (especially when the document is literally sent as an attachment, killing any shot at collaboration before it has a chance). That last point can't be overlooked. Sending out a document in this way implies a finality, and that challenge and discussion can't take place. But if we truly want our teams to have an understanding of the needs captured in our strategy, we must do more than give them marching orders. We need to give our teams a chance to understand the content so that they can process it in a way that gives them something to attach meaning to. Otherwise, it's just a verbose to-do list.

What do we need? Alignment!

When do we need it? Now!

How do we get there? (crickets chirping)

As I said, achieving alignment around a strategy is difficult enough without throwing remote teams in the mix, and we'll get to the ways to do this.

What strategic alignment requires, remote or not, is meaningful conversationWoof. How does that happen? Sounds like another meeting to skip. Meaningful conversation doesn't just simply sprout out of the ground as we once thought dwarves did. It doesn't have to be complicated — luckily we have at our disposal simple tools and trusted processes to help guide us. In fact, I'd argue doing this remotely introduces new opportunities to improve over our in-person interactions.

A great tool I always advocate for, that helps in creating the conditions for meaningful discussion, are visual maps (I touched upon this in my last post Understanding the Big Picture). It allows people to point to our ideas, and organize them easily. We can see our ideas, move them, group them, and really start to see what is missing. If you can see it, you can challenge it. This is critical. If we want people to truly understand our plans, goals, and ambitions so that they can take ownership to deliver on them, they need to feel they can contribute. And to contribute often means allowing space for disagreement and challenge. That's hard to do over an email in response to a word doc. Even in a Zoom meeting, the war of words is reserved for the eloquent, sharp-tongued speakers — notice everyone else on mute with the cameras off? Anchoring a conversation around a visual map allows people to participate in less assuming ways. We no longer have to say the right thing at the right time. A few simple words written on a sticky note might be all it takes to spur the most important discussion in your meeting.

Now you might think this becomes more difficult in remote scenarios. Fortunately for us, we're seeing a boom in new collaboration tools such as Miro and Mural that embrace free-form methods of collaborative discussion (think sticky notes on a digital canvas — see the screenshot below). We have seen teams embrace these tools and integrate them into their daily routines at all levels of the org structure. What's great is as you embrace these approaches, you start to create self-documenting artefacts that you can refer back to as your plans evolve. Meeting minutes will feel archaic compared to these. It's not just something to read, but something to interact with, and that gives life and energy to your plans.

I might have touched a nerve calling out the strategy doc. Look, share the long read as well. It has a time and a place. It can still prove to be a great primer to a discussion, or something to help fill in the gaps after it. The written form combined with the visual maps are a powerful combination. And at worst, you'll have given NyQuil some stiff competition.

Let's face it... our Zoom meetings suck because they mostly replicate our in-person meetings that suck. It's time to change it up. Your strategy is dead in the water without conversation that helps drives towards a true understanding of what needs to be achieved. Visual maps and digital tools can play an important role in guiding those conversations along, allowing your teams to engage in meaningful work, and for your business and customers be successful.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on what you have tried — what has worked and what hasn't? Want to learn more about the approaches we take? Let's schedule some time to chat.