Remote work defined 2020. Alignment will define 2021.

This week’s article is a response to an email from HubSpot that was forwarded to me by a founder friend. In their email, Hubspot poses an interesting idea:

In 2021, alignment will eat strategy for lunch. – Hubspot (2021)

It’s funny that HubSpot should riff their opening line off of an oft-attributed Peter Drucker quote (the actual origin of this quote is unknown) because Drucker is famous for talking about the importance of alignment in organizations.

But Drucker is not a management expert of our era. Many of his most famous ideas came from works he published in the 1950s and 1960s.

It would seem as though Peter Drucker’s many musings of how to effectively run an organization would be common practice by now. And yet, we’re still talking about them as though they were novel ideas.

One of the more popular ideas that he’s known for is Management By Objective (MBO), which is a goal-setting framework that inspired Objectives and Key Results. While goal setting alone isn’t enough to align an organization, Drucker developed the framework as a tool to aid leaders in setting performance targets and driving employee engagement.

Even OKRs are not new – that framework was developed in the 1970s by Andy Grove.

At this point, you might be wondering: what is all of this talk about alignment if it’s an idea that’s been around for 50 to 70 years? Maybe even since the advent of the modern business. It’s true: alignment is not a new concept. But it remains a relevant and salient topic for companies of all sizes.

The reason alignment remains relevant to today’s world is that work remains both:

  • fundamentally driven by human behavior
  • and volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA)

While alignment continues to challenge leaders, the tools available have changed. The shift toward remote work – and eventually, the post-COVID economy – will forever change how we align our work. In many ways, this is for the better: we’re better equipped to address alignment today than we were a decade ago.

Remote work changes everything nothing

Change doesn’t happen simply because we want it to. Or because it’s something that is good for us. We all know we should probably exercise more, eat a little bit healthier, maybe lose a few extra pounds. But many of us don’t actually follow through with what we know we should do?

Before 2020, remote work was one of those things. Many knew of its myriad benefits. There were remote-first companies like GitLab, Automattic, and Basecamp. And yes, even Minsilo has always been a remote-first company.

And yet, an overwhelming majority of companies opted to have everybody come into the office. Even newly minted startups opted to spend money on coworking and office spaces before COVID.

A common refrain I heard prior to 2020 from startup founders was:

“I know that people like remote work, but we’re just so much more effective being in the same room and being able to bounce ideas off each other.”

Or statements like:

“Remote work sure is good for some companies, but you can’t beat the synergy of working shoulder-to-shoulder. How can remote work replace things like the watercooler?”

Larger companies, too, have long talked about remote work as the future of work. In their quest to undergo a digital transformation, many large companies have poured millions of dollars working with consulting firms and turnaround specialists to implement a modern system for managing work.

In some ways, this shift began long before COVID-19 and the mandatory shift toward remote work.

Companies large and small have been distributed for years. Even offices with people all working together had systems for chatting with their colleagues outside of the four walls of the office.

Most people were already holding Zoom calls with potential customers. Engineering standup meetings would often involve huddle rooms with participants joining in via video conference.

Most teams already used something like Slack or Microsoft Teams. Maybe SMS group messaging. Or even just email. And if you go back far enough, these are just substitutes for the telephone and interoffice memo system.

Despite their prevelance, these tools did not transform organizations.

It matters how these tools are used. Garbage in still equates to garbage out.

Necessity is the mother of invention

Growing up, I often heard my dad say to me: “don’t fix what ain’t broke.”

But, he also would say to me: “necessity is the mother of invention” and then list the accomplishments that were made in the 1940s in response to WWII. A difficult period of time for humanity also led to dramatic innovation that changed the face of our world forever.

In 2020, we saw the rapid adoption of remote work tools and software, such as Slack and Zoom (yes, they were big before, but now they’re near universal). COVID-19 is to remote work adoption, as WWII was to the development of jet airplanes.

In 2021, we’re going to see the same companies that went remote start rethinking how they address alignment. Because alignment is broken in most companies. And what used to work no longer works.

Alignment is more than just improving communication between teams

Don’t get me wrong: communication is critical to alignment. After all, alignment is fundamentally about communication.

Unfortunately, more communication will not improve alignment on its own. Leaders need to think strategically about the systems that they use to facilitate this communication.

The last thing you want as a leader is for important information to be the proverbial “needle in the haystack.”

Managing alignment directly

Much like we saw with the shift toward full-time remote work due to COVID-19, we’re going to see a shift toward alignment being managed directly by managers and leaders across organizations in 2021.

That is, alignment itself is something that needs management – alignment can no longer be treated as the byproduct of good management.

To date, much of the focus has been on activities that create alignment. Alignment is a side effect, not a direct goal. We think this fundamentally backward: good strategy needs effective execution. Alignment bridges the gap between strategy and execution.

Software makes managing alignment simpler

In their newsletter, HubSpot makes an astute observation about the relationship between strategy and software.

Alignment is born of two things: strategy and software

To expand on Hubspot’s statement, we’ve identified two categories of alignment tools.

  • General-purpose tools
  • Function-specific tools

General-purpose tools like Minsilo facilitate alignment in organizations by providing a software tool for managing alignment directly. Alignment management has several facets – including strategic planning, goal setting, context sharing, and activity management – that can be easily managed through software.

Function-specific tools help facilitate certain tasks and jobs within a company. For example, HubSpot provides a portfolio of tools to help with several key growth functions: from sales to marketing. When function-specific tools are also well-designed, they help break down silos between related functions and foster new opportunities for collaboration (both in the tool and between individuals in the teams that use them).

Importantly, aligning an organization in 2021 will require the adoption of both categories of tools.

We envision most companies will select one general-purpose tool and adopt several function-specific tools. Since most modern tools can be integrated with each other, setting up workflows the align organizational functions are now possible.

The role of strategy in alignment

It should go without saying that alignment spans beyond just a technology solution. While software creates the structure for alignment to occur, leaders need to be strategic in the implementation of these tools (and how they generally manage alignment).

To paraphrase from Jonathan Trevor‘s 2019 book, Align: A Leadership Blueprint for Aligning Enterprise Purpose, Strategy and Organisation, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to alignment. Instead, leaders should be thinking in terms of fit. The type of alignment that is desirable depends on the goals and needs of the business. McDonald’s is a very different type of business than Microsoft.

The Oxford University professor also goes on to mention the importance of having an alignment strategy in the first place. It’s hard to achieve alignment if you don’t have a clear idea of what alignment will look like in your company.

Further Reading

If you’re interested in learning more about alignment strategy, we wrote a free eBook on the topic as a primer to the strategic side of Organizational Alignment.

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Ryan Leaf

Ryan is the founder of Minsilo. He is passionate about autonomous teams, the future of work, and organizational alignment. In his free time, Ryan enjoys traveling, exploring cities, and learning to fly.