Create Alignment: How Engineering Managers Can Keep their Team on The Same Page

Written by Divine Odazie

October 3, 2021

A team that is aligned has a clear purpose and shared expectations. Without alignment, it can be hard to execute strategic initiatives. One of the most important tasks for an engineering manager is to create alignment within their team. 

This article will share how you can create alignment within your team using these tips drawn from an article by Cormac McGuire, an engineering manager at Intercom:

The engineering manager’s role in creating alignment

Many people assume that creating alignment is the job of senior leadership, but much of alignment happens at a team level. 

Aligning your team with the objectives, purpose, and strategy of the company is crucial for success. This report by Betterworks shows that more than 70% of employees claim to be disengaged from their company. Good engineering managers should go a long way to ensuring their team is on the same page about the purpose and expectations of the company.

To illustrate, an engineering manager should turn a team that looks like this:

into a team that looks more like this:

Here are the tips on how you can keep your team aligned.

Create a shared understanding of what the team is building

Alignment is only temporary if there is no shared understanding. Having talented engineers on your team counts for little if some don’t understand what they’re building.

We discussed in this article — 4 Things Engineering Managers of Effective Teams Do — how understanding the bigger picture is vital in building and maintaining effective teams. This is because it clarifies the entire product and would help keep engineers motivated when challenges occur during the development period.

An excellent way to do this is by getting everyone in the same room, call, meeting, etc., to create a map of how customers will use what the team is building and challenges they may encounter while using the finished product. 

For example, below is a sample user flow diagram of how users will make edits on Wikipedia.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The purpose is to create a shared understanding of what the team is building. That means getting alignment with product managers, designers, and other key people on or outside the team about why they’re building it in the first place, what problem it will solve for the customers, and how it will work.

2. Give everyone a say in the direction of the team

Many engineering managers try the “command and control” management style, in which decisions are made from the top down. They make the decisions, then instruct the team on what to build and who is responsible for building it.

It’s challenging to keep a team aligned in situations like that. It’s demotivating for an engineering team to carry out someone else’s commands on every little thing— seeing that engineers need autonomy to be creative and innovative. If you deny your team the ability to make their own decisions, don’t be surprised if they depart for a team that allows them to do so.

A great way to help solve this is to create a culture where your engineers are given direct input into the product roadmap. You can do this at a micro-level at ideation sessions. Many engineers might be reluctant to share ideas early on, but you can help things get along by asking questions like “Is this the most impactful thing we can work on right on?”, “Could we solve this problem differently?”, “Are we solving the right problem?” all this will inevitably bring out new ideas. 

3. Be sure everyone knows your expectations and that of the company’s 

Every engineering manager would agree on the benefits of engineers having autonomy, and we’ve seen in several of our blog posts — how autonomy is vital in building and maintaining motivation. But when everyone has autonomy over their task, time, and technique and has a single focus on a single area of the product, they can be so focused on their domain that they lose sight of the big picture. 

As the engineering manager, you should act like this all-seeing, omnipresent force that has that team laser focus on your expectation and that of the company’s, and should keep everyone on track to meet it.

Doing this by making sure everyone is up to date on the critical operational and product metrics. And also, put these expectations open—somewhere visible to the entire team, which means that everyone on the team can focus on their work but see if it meets your expectations and that of the company.

Conclusion

Alignment can feel pleasant to have rather than a pressing requirement for some engineering teams. However, ignoring it will be to your detriment. One or two misaligned engineers may not seem like a big deal in the short term, but they can be disastrous for your team and, as a result, your company.

If you get your team’s alignment right, you’ll be able to keep them on track and avoid a lot of future challenges.

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