Without alignment, teams will always make bad decisions that sometimes kill people.

When I mentor or coach people, I try to impress upon everyone the importance of communication alignment. If two people, two teams, two nations. etc., aren’t using the same language problems will occur. It’s not a matter of if, but when and how severe. Without alignment, people will naturally try to interpret what they hear into their language and understanding. By communicating using methods that inhibit the ability to observe body language makes matters worse.

Such was the case between two groups trying to determine how to stop the spread of COVID-19. As written by Megan Molteni for Wired magazine:

[Lidia] Morawska had spent more than two decades advising a different branch of the WHO on the impacts of air pollution. When it came to flecks of soot and ash belched out by smokestacks and tailpipes, the organization readily accepted the physics she was describing—that particles of many sizes can hang aloft, travel far, and be inhaled. Now, though, the WHO’s advisers seemed to be saying those same laws didn’t apply to virus-laced respiratory particles. To them, the word airborne only applied to particles smaller than 5 microns. Trapped in their group-specific jargon, the two camps on Zoom literally couldn’t understand one another.

The beginning of a global pandemic was a terrible time to get into a fight over words. But she had an inkling that the verbal sparring was a symptom of a bigger problem—that outdated science was underpinning public health policy. She had to get through to them. But first, she had to crack the mystery of why their communication was failing so badly.

I’m sharing this with you to point out that these problems occur everywhere. It’s not just a problem between design and development (the world that I work in), but one that happens where two or more are gathered. Communication alignment is not a luxury, it is a requirement for success. To think otherwise, to do otherwise is a simple sign of naivety (new leaders) or willful ignorance (old managers).

So, how do you get into alignment? Back to the CDC story, Lidia Morawska had to redefine “airborne transmission” and publish her related research in a scientific journal. As a form of validation, the CDC accepted the new definition and soon after came to the conclusion that people needed to wear masks, not gloves, to stop the spread of the pandemic.

It took months for Lidia to perform the necessary research and investigations in order for her to create new language that the CDC understood. While I appreciate the rigor of the scientific community, thankfully, most of us don’t need scientific studies to align our communication.

You can do this easily. Begin by asking questions about one another. Start with simple questions and lean into more challenging questions as the dialogue continues. The types of questions should be relative to the people coming together. Here are some questions that might work for product teams, but the list should be tailored to the people who will be in the room.

  • What is your Super Power?
  • What is your Kryptonite?
  • What is important to you about your work?
  • What makes you feel seen and heard?
  • How are you measured for success?
  • How do you define failure?
  • How do you earn a promotion?
  • What might get you fired?

It might not be obvious, so I’ll add that it takes some vulnerability to make the conversation honest, engaging, and meaningful. But, someone has to start, so it may as well be you. There are no bonus points for transparency. It’s a requirement. The purpose of this exchange is to gain clarity around language while also developing some empathy for one another.

A little investment in time, honesty, and vulnerability go a long, long way. Once a team has developed connections between the members, they will function as one unit versus function as one part or one half of a unit. Your mileage may vary, but I assure you an exercise like this is a lot better than hoping two groups of strangers will get together and jell.