076: Startup Team Alignment
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The word for today is Alignment. Today we discuss what alignment is and why it is important to your team and company. Alignment is a near synonym of disagreement. The difference is a disagreement puts up barriers in a relationship and alignment is a slight difference of direction. Disagreements lead to dead ends. Getting aligned with someone opens up a much needed conversation to get back in line.
Being out of alignment with a co-founder, team member, etc. is not a bad thing. Because alignment can be fixed with a discussion and plan. As long as there is a follow-up conversation following the initial disagreement. We talk about how changing this one word choice can completely change your team’s and company’s effectiveness. We also discuss how encouraging alignment and transparency will cut down on negativity.
Our main points for today include:
- Knowing when you are out of alignment with someone.
- How to productively have the needed conversation.
- Deciding on the next step to get back into alignment.
- Encouraging others to see disagreement as just a difference in alignment.
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As always, you can hit us up on Twitter @Steli or @hnshah, #thestartupchat.
Steli: Hello, everyone. This is Steli Efti.
Hiten: And Hiten Shah.
Steli: And in today’s episode of the Startup Chat, we’re going to talk about alignment. I’m looking at a smiling face full of expectations, curiosity and the wonderful wonder of where will this conversation go, and the funny thing is, it’s noåt even my topic. Hiten wanted to talk about this but I thought I’ll do the intro as he was downloading a new timer app to make sure that we stay on point and within the 20 minute mark. So Hiten, why did you want to talk about alignment?
Hiten: I don’t know. I feel like that is going to be my theme for the year, this year.
Steli: Oh, nice.
Hiten: Yeah. I just feel like it’s the one, big hammer that I’m gonna use to sort of get things going the way I think they should be in my businesses. And I’ve been thinking about it all year; it’s not been that long.
Steli: All right, so let me quickly stop you there. Is that something that you do? Because I’ve seen a number of people give the year a theme, or even just a word, as kind of a focus. And I thought that was kind of a cool idea. Is that something you typically do, or no; this has nothing to do with that?
Hiten: I got an emoji, too. It’s the rocket ship.
Steli: You have an emoji for the year?
Hiten: Emoji here, you have the word.
Hiten: I usually just make it up. I don’t always do it; I just felt like making it up this year.
Steli: All right, I love it. I like it.
Hiten: Sometimes yo do things without a reason, right?
Steli: I like it. I’m just trying to understand –
Hiten: No, I just had a hammer. And in every situation I’ve seen in my own businesses, or even in my friends’ businesses, when I start using that word, people instantly know what I’m talking about. Because when you’ve got a car and you’re driving, and if you’ve ever had an alignment issue, it just veers one way, or veers the other way. And it’s harder to drive and you have to compensate. And I felt that I kept compensating because things were always out of alignment. So then I stepped back and said: what’s the problem, here? Well, people aren’t aligned.
They can’t make the same decision as I would, if you want to look at it that way. Or they can’t make the appropriate decision for the business, or they’re thinking about things that are not right. So I think I’ve come up with all kinds of strategies to keep alignment just – things aligned. Even when I feel like off with my cofounder now, like hey, we have an alignment problem; let’s solve it.
Steli: When was the last time you used that hammer?
Hiten: I’m constantly using it this year. That’s why I’m putting it as the theme of the year.
Steli: Okay. So what’s a good example for people where you heard about an issue – either in your own company or somewhere else, you identified a problem, you looked at it through the lens of alignment. And then using that as a framework, it helped solve that. Let’s go through it like step-by-step and talk about that.
Hiten: Absolutely. I would say that in any relationship, you have to be aligned if the goal is to get something done. So if you’re just in a friendly relationship and you’re just friends, that’s totally different. If you’re trying to get something done, then you need alignment. I’m going to give a really classic one that you just actually got in alignment when I suggested something last time. So we’re going to make some changes to our Facebook group, right?
Hiten: And I proposed something. And I said: look, I’m open. If you have a better idea, let’s do that. I’ll justify mine because I like it but I’m open. And then we said we’ll decide in the future. We didn’t even say this week or whatever, right? And so I would say that we were out of alignment at that point, but there was a next step. So it’s okay to be out of alignment as long as there’s a next step. Next step was you were gonna come back or we were gonna talk about it whenever it made sense because we both had the common goal of trying to make things better, simply put.
And then you came back today and said: hey, I’ve been thinking about that thing you said and I think we should do that; let’s do it. And I talked to a few people, and we should do it. See? Now we have alignment on it.
Steli: See how easy that works?
Hiten: Yeah, but what I’m saying is it’s like – it’s a framework I’ve been using and it seems to solve a lot of problems in life.
Steli: It let’s people think about it in a productive way.
Hiten: Yeah, and then I knew we were out of alignment so I automatically was like: oh, yeah, okay. Like you don’t agree, yet; that’s fine. Let’s find something better or go with what I said.
Hiten: And usually it just breaks down things into very binary options, which are usually easier. When you have one and two and you have to pick one, it’s easier than one, two, three, four, five and you have to pick one.
Steli: I like it because on first – I haven’t thought about this deeply but it seems to me that this is the type of thing, as you said like a hammer that can work in a very productive way in many, many situations.
Hiten: Yeah, and it’s language. It’s not even like you’re doing the same thing in every situation; it’s just common language. And this is really weird but it’s probably because we’re doing a lot of work with words in our company, in content so I’ve been thinking about words a lot more. Like I’ll nitpick people’s words. Like good friends of mine, they’ll see me nitpicking the words and everybody’s like: what are you doing? I’m like: I’m nitpicking your words. Just give me a better word. And then they start making fun of me, and then I convince them of my words better.
Steli: Well, words do matter. Like that’s the crazy thing. I think that a lot of times – a lot of times I think we underestimate the power of words. And utilizing communication in general. It seems that most people communicate fairly thoughtlessly –
Hiten: It’s like taking for granted.
Steli: It’s taking for granted –
Hiten: Everyone’s good at it, right? Well, just because you can speak doesn’t mean you can communicate.
Steli: Yes. Just because you talk and can speak doesn’t mean you know how to communicate. And you know, a lot of times when you master communication or you learn more about it, like hypnosis is a good example. People start throwing the word manipulative around. If you say something that will make somebody feel a certain way, isn’t that manipulative? But the way that I look at it is that we are constantly, at all times, manipulating each other.
Hiten: That’s right, yeah.
Steli: We’re influencing each other at all times with language. The question is, do you do it without realizing what you do? And a lot of times we do damage to people and we don’t really realize it.
Steli: Or do you do it with an intent – obviously, the intent can be positive or negative but the question is, do you have control of that manipulation or do you just manipulate left and right without having any clue what you’re doing?
Hiten: That’s right. I know a lot of people that don’t have a clue but they’re manipulating a lot.
Steli: Yes, absolutely. I think – when did I bring this example up recently? This is – we’ve got to stray back to the alignment topic. But I remember like a good example of something that seems very harmless, but to me was very, very harmful, is like many, many years back, I’m at a birthday party with the family. And one of my aunt, that’s like a very simple person, very sweet woman. They were talking about wealth and rich people and money and how it’s bad and whatever. And I wasn’t paying a lot of attention until my 60-year-old aunt turned around, looked at my 40-year-old cousin, grabbed him, looked him in the eye and said: you know what?
We are simple people. We don’t really care about money or success so this is not really for us. And I stepped right in. I took her arm off his neck and I said: Aunt, I love you. You might be a simple person that doesn’t care about wealth and success. He’s a 40-year-old, he can care about anything and everything he wants, and he can accomplish anything he wants in life. Like I had to literally step in and to me it was like: wait a second, don’t say that.
Hiten: Yeah, don’t tell him that, don’t say that.
Steli: Don’t say that because he might believe it.
Hiten: That’s the kind of stuff I do too, dude. [Inaudible] [00:07:42] good one.
Steli: Right? So to me, this is a prime example of a good person with good intent –
Hiten: Not knowing what they’re about to do – they don’t know.
Steli: – not knowing what they’re doing, influencing somebody young to think about wealth and success in a way that’s like that’s not for you. No. No. It may or maybe not for him but you don’t tell him that. So anyways, coming back to alignment –
Hiten: So don’t give Steli any wives tales or anything like that.
Steli: No, don’t do that. And don’t – well, we could talk a lot about this and maybe this is a future topic.
Hiten: Oh, yeah.
Steli: But –
Hiten: The word.
Steli: There is a beautiful thing about that word because if I run through mentally a number of seemingly unrelated issues, if I ask myself am I in alignment with x, y and z or are we in alignment in this conflict situation, it’s typically no. It must be when there’s conflict or if there’s unhappiness, if there’s –
Hiten: It’s misalignment.
Steli: There must be a misalignment, right?[Crosstalk]
Steli: It’s a beautiful word. And it’s also – I like the word because it does visualize well. So it’s a word that’s not just conceptual but you can actually understand physically what it means. And it typically involves multiple objects.
Hiten: That’s right.
Steli: So that’s really powerful in –
Hiten: Like road, car, wheel?
Steli: Yes, or multiple cars or multiple objects.
Hiten: Yeah, whatever.
Steli: And that is a beautiful thing when we talk about other people, when we talk about teams.
Hiten: I call things alignment documents, in the company.
Steli: Alignment documents. Tell me more about that.
Hiten: Is that an alignment document or are we just sketching something or thinking about something or proposing something but we’re not supposed to get aligned on it. Because there’s a lot of documents in organizations, even in small ones. Like it just happens. We’re distributed so we have more documentation than people would at, like, nine people, right?
Hiten: And it’s like today. I’ll give you an example. I’m working on product design with a designer. And we had a lot of misalignment things there. Like it’s just somebody I’ve worked with for a long time and him and I have a flow. And other people try and get in it and it confuses everybody. That’s just what happens. Don’t know why but that’s the reality. And so now what we’re doing is we shortened the cycles so that him and I work on a design, then we get feedback from other people, and there’s an alignment document. The alignment document is basically always created.
So it’s basically like we’ll have a design, and it’s just a proposal. We’ll put it in a document and say this is what we’re proposing; comment, do everything, this is where we’re working. Once this is done – and this is like design, right? So once this is done, engineering is happy, everyone’s happy, that design doesn’t – don’t worry about it; it’s getting shipped. That’s it. But that document is where we align across different parts of the company or different people. Usually you’ll throw it across the wall and it’ll be like: oh, there you go; have fun. We can’t do that and on a small team, it causes a lot of disruption. So there’s misalignment around that kind of stuff so that was the way we solved it.
Steli: I love that. All right, so let’s talk about this. So we’ve talked about the word. We’ve talked about it being just a good question to ask: is there misalignment, here? That’s a powerful question to ask. Well now, shit, the answer’s yes. What do we do? Let’s say I have an issue with my – it’s like a common reason for startups failing: misalignment with founders. So shit, I have these people that I tell them that we’ve started something, we’ve got something going. Now we’re having constant conflict. The problem is we’re misaligned. What the fuck do we do with this, now?
Hiten: That’s right, and this is great because we were talking about earlier about a friend of mine posted on the Facebook group about cofounder issue, and I think alignment was what the problem was. And they probably figured it out too late. So we should talk about this. I know both of us have had this kind of stuff. But basically, I think alignment, early stage with a cofounder, is basically like you never want – you’re aligned if you feel like each other’s contributions is fair. And it’s not even fair against equity; it’s like you both are trying to create something new. So expectations and all that, and speaking them out and stuff like that is really important.
So I’ve had people prevent themselves from getting in a bad cofounder situation just by writing out expectations of each other, literally. When they don’t know each other too well but they think they want to start a company together. It’s like: guys, just go ahead and write down the expectations of each other and figure out how – whether those things match up. You could even do things like independent exercises. What do you want out of this? What do you want out of this? Great. It’s kind of like even values exercises. What are your values? What do you think our values are?
And then kind of doing it. And so I think there’s just things you can do to independently determine expectations and then align together. So there’s a lot of that kind of stuff that I think about with cofounders that they just don’t do.
Steli: Yes, which I think boils down, to a large degree, to just transparent communication. Like I think that most people run away from communicating things they find –
Steli: Uncomfortable, that they find it has potential conflict. So: oh, I’m not happy with you –
Hiten: So natural conflict avoidance type of deal?
Hiten: Yeah, you’re right, yeah.
Steli: But let’s say that we don’t do that. Let’s say we realize things are not going well between us, we have constant disagreement. So we write down expectations to figure out alignment and now, shit, we’re all completely –
Hiten: At least you’ll know why.
Steli: Well, that’s a good thing, right? So it’s very cathartic. Now it’s not this: I constantly feel bad about this other person. But we’re avoiding confronting that. Which if you don’t confront it, you can’t solve it. Like it’s just gonna grow.
Hiten: Always, yeah.
Steli: Also, what people I think underestimate is how harmful it is to try to deal with this type of situation on your own. A lot of times, humans, in order to avoid conflict, used to –
Hiten: They won’t talk to the person that they have the conflict with?
Steli: Either they’ll talk to other people, which is a very bad idea, but some people will just talk to themselves and try to find a solution –
Hiten: Out of it.
Steli: – out of it within themselves. And sometimes they might seem to have succeeded in the moment. But that problem persists. And you see that sometimes where people go: everything was going well and then it blew up. No.
Steli: No. Nothing – it was not going well.
Hiten: None of it’s going well.
Steli: Nothing was going well.
Hiten: You just didn’t understand how to recognize it.
Hiten: So I think recognition of misalignment. That’s where you’re at.
Steli: Yes. So let’s say that people follow this framework and they go: okay, when we recognize misalignment, we’re gonna deal with it by step one is communicating, bringing it up. Step two, understanding where everybody’s coming from; that’s what you’re basically saying. Like write down our intents; what are we trying to do?
Hiten: Part of it is like when I hear about disagreement, now I just call it misalignment. Like it’s not disagreement anymore. And then if I hear about it, like someone’s complaining about somebody, I’ll be like: let’s bring them in the room right now. Do I need to be here? That’s exactly what I’ll say. And they’re like yes or no. They decide. I’ll be here if I can help. If not, I’m out of here; you guys figure it the fuck out, right? And then we’re out. We’re done. And so that’s an easy hack, especially when it’s like someone complaining about somebody else. And you’re trying to enforce transparency – or not even enforce it but encourage it.
Steli: Yeah, that’s a general rule that’s –
Hiten: I would actually say enforce.
Steli: It’s a general rule that I find very important is when somebody’s talking about somebody else in the company that’s not in the room, you should stop that and do exactly what you proposed.
Hiten: And you can do that for positive things, too.
Steli: Yeah, they should hear it. They should hear it.
Hiten: It’s not just negative.
Steli: I’m bad at that. That’s a good one.
Hiten: It’s not just negative.
Steli: Yeah, I like that. So okay. So following along with this logic, let’s take the cofounder example. We sat down, we wrote down our kind of intents and goals, and we’re misaligned as fuck, right? What the fuck do we do, now?
Hiten: See if you can get aligned. See where the tradeoffs are, right?
Steli: Is that just the process of saying I want –let’s take something stupid. I want to sell the company this year to do something else, and you want to run this company forever. Let’s say that’s kind of the misalignment. And is the – let’s find a way to get aligned. Is that a question of compromise, like I’ll get a little closer to you, you get a little closer to me? Or is there –
Hiten: Well, if you’re taking that instance, then it’s like you can both get what you want.
Hiten: So then you would ask the person who wants to sell it: why would you like to sell it? Take the emotion out of it. Take the disagreement out of it and just say we’re misaligned. Okay, great. I need to understand what your side is. And then he might say: oh, I just see it dying. And the person who wants to keep going might not have even thought of that. And that happens. Like why do you think that? We never talked about that. And then all of a sudden you have a different discussion. And it might go a different way. But I think it’s just about putting it on the table and then realizing it’s just misalignment; it’s not disagreement.
It’s not dissent. That’s what we always feel. It’s like: oh, they don’t agree with me. It’s like: no, wait, wait. Like just go ask him. Talk to him. There’s an alignment issue. Not – nobody hates each other. You’re just not aligned on what’s next. It’s really just alignment on what’s next, if you think about most situations.
Steli: Yeah. I love that also because think about those two words, coming back to the word thing. Misalignment versus disagreement. It’s a big difference.
Hiten: I don’t agree with you because we’re not aligned.
Steli: Yes, it’s a big difference.
Hiten: Different lines. It’s not: we don’t agree. That’s just as harsh as I don’t agree with you, right? It’s a nice way. This is like: we’re misaligned; let’s get aligned. And everyone I’ve ever said that to is like: okay. And then I can spit my stuff and it opens them up to talking.
Steli: Yeah, I love that. It makes such a big difference in the way you think about the situation, and what the next step. We’re misaligned; obviously the next step is to figure out where is everybody and how to get everybody on the same line again. Versus we have disagreement. It’s not clear necessarily what the next step is. Somebody needs to agree with me. Like it’s much more like we don’t like what the other person tries to do so how the fuck do we –
Hiten: It’s nonjudgmental
Steli: Yes. Which brings me to my next point about this, which is do you need to have a certain level of both self-awareness and non-judgment to be able to have the alignment discussion? Like can you be insanely opinionated, maybe slightly un-self aware and have a productive alignment conversation with somebody else if you’re misaligned? Hiten’s body language is very interesting. He kind of postured up in like almost like making a prayer type of a situation, looking up, even to the heavens, independent from his religion.
Hiten: Somebody else has the answer.
Steli: I’m not sure – can somebody else – is there a higher power that can answer this? That was kind of his reaction on a body level. So yeah, what do you think? I’m wondering if somebody can have this conversation – like I’m asking it with an opinion, I think, when my opinion is it’s tough to have an alignment conversation – or misalignment conversation – when somebody’s insanely opinionated and maybe not as open-minded about allowing everybody to be where they are and trying to figure out how to get everybody on the same point.
Hiten: In my experience, it’s helped me in my toughest situations with the toughest critics. So the people who are in disagreement with me. And it’s not that I convince them, it’s just that it got brought onto the table. So I think when you say – when you think you’re actually – how can I put it? When you think that somebody else literally disagrees with you, then you’re closed to understanding their opinion. Because you’re saying mine’s right. That’s essentially what that means. But then when you can just walk in the room or email someone or whatever and say: hey, I think we’re misaligned; here’s what I believe.
So the situations like that, I’ll just throw out what I believe. I’ll give more detail as to my side, so to speak. And then ask them so where are we – you could say where are we misaligned but a different way to say that without using that word is basically like: where’s the difference in what you’re thinking versus what I just laid out? And just soft. You’re trying to keep things not cordial, but like soft. Because you’re in a situation where you’re not aligned. You’ve got to get aligned or the common goal won’t happen.
Steli: Before we go onto the tip section, I think that most people would think of this discussion as a soft, kind of a nice to have – oh, when I run a business, this is the kind of the nice to have the thingies but what’s really important is that we crank out work and this and that. No. You need to understand that if your team is misaligned and your competitor’s is, you’re done. Like whenever you see teams and companies that move a lot faster than anybody else, it’s because they have alignment. It’s because they waste zero – they have zero friction so obviously they’re much faster on the street than you are. Because you are going in all kinds of zigzagging directions, you’re wasting human energy, focus, time.
You have these arguments, these brainstorming. People work on a product and then you stop it because it went to the wrong direction. That is what makes companies slow. And what makes companies fast is alignment. So.
Hiten: That’s your tip. What makes companies fast is alignment. That was good.
Hiten: Now I can go on my rant? No, I’m just kidding. I’m just kidding. That was really good. But you actually triggered a word, the word friction. You might have heard – yeah, you were there. But my whole thesis about team and culture is that culture is basically eliminating all friction. And so misalignment causes some of the most friction. In fact, most friction in a company has to do with misalignment. Like friction in shipping; shipping the wrong thing or not getting enough customers. You’re just not aligned. So I think you want to think about alignment as a way to speed up your ability to reduce the friction against work and the team thing.
Like friction is against getting work done, and alignment causes work to get done better, essentially. So I’m just saying the alignment can actually solve what I think is the biggest cultural problem in companies, which is there’s too much friction in getting something done.
Steli: Amen, brother. Amen.
Hiten: All right.
Steli: Okay, so this is it from us for this episode. Make sure – here’s an announcement. We are gonna make changes to the Facebook group. If you’re not already part of it, go to www.thestartupchat.com/FB and join. There’s going to be some interesting things going on there so –
Hiten: Yeah, we’re going to experiment more.
Steli: So stay tuned for that and we’re looking forward to another episode very soon.
Hiten: See ya.