Mapping Alignment

This article was first published by Chris McDermott on Medium 9th February 2020

Ensuring everyone is aligned to strategic objectives is one of those tricky activities that require a series of interconnected practices, all telling the story to different audiences who have differing needs for understanding. The story has to be as coherent to executives as it is to those on the teams bringing them to life. However the story has to be told differently.

Timespan of discretion

Jabe Bloom, building on the work of Elliot Jaques, suggests that each level of an organisation, in particular in an enterprise, operates in a different timespan of discretion. Timespan of discretion, which needs at least a post to itself, in essence means that because different levels of an organisation consider work over different time horizons (ie executives are concerned about what the organisation will do over months and years and for members of agile development teams it’s days and weeks), the narrative they articulate together at each level is different to that at a different level. This leads to challenges as members of each level discuss work and direction together because they have a different narrative. So to ensure objectives are clearly articulated to each level, in a way that is meaningful to the people who operate in that layer, we often chain a series of practices together.

Mapping the practices

When trying to make sense of the practices and how effective they are in a particular context, I’ve recently experimented with colleagues by using a Maturity Map. Normally when drawing Maturity Maps, the anchor we place on them is that of a customer and their need. This leads the map to be bound within the context of a team or more broadly in an organisation. However, recently, when trying to develop a shared understanding of the alignment practices that a client uses, it struck me that mapping the problem could provide an interesting insight. A colleague had already created a visual that represented the artifacts and their relationships, and, interestingly, the quality of the relationships (more on that to follow) between the artefacts used. To turn this into a map, all that was left was to anchor these artefacts, consider them through the lens of Social Practice Theory and plot their maturity.

The first thing then to consider, as with all maps, is ‘who is the customer’ and what are their needs that we are trying to meet. In the context of alignment to strategic goals, the question is: who is it that needs to understand direction and what, from their perspective, does that mean? In the map below we look at this from the perspective of a ‘team member’ and their need to answer the question ‘What is the right thing for us to be working on?’. We can then follow the chain of practices used to ensure that this need is met.

What the map shows, is a chain of social practices and the quality of the relationships between them. We can see that the practices surrounding user stories, backlogs, planning and product roadmaps are all fairly well connected and are delivering value. However we can see that the use of OKR is challenged. There also appears to be inertia created by the inability to access good performance data. The inference here is that the shorter timespan (days to weeks) activities appear to be operating, but those in a longer timespan are challenged.

Focusing on the relationships

To improve our situation and mature some of the practices maybe we could focus our attention on the relationship between the practices instead of the practices themselves. Here we can see, because of the additional meaning attributed to the connections between practices by the red dashed lines, that two relationships are in need of some improvement. The first is between our strategy, in the form of a Wardley Map (of course), and our objectives articulated in the form of OKR. The second between the OKR and the product roadmap.

Highlighting the quality of the relationships brings to mind a route planner that shows roads and details whether a road is a major or minor road and even, for example with something like google traffic view, the volume of traffic and the current impact on flow. With an understanding of the quality of the relationships and more specifically the information flow between them we have further insight and options for acting.

So to improve the situation in the example above, we’ve introduced the practice of back briefing. The aim being to increase the quality of information flow between our strategy and objectives and by that improve our objectives. By having an understanding of the quality of interaction, we’ve focused our improvement between the practices and not directly on the practices themselves.

Hopefully this post has highlighted two things to consider when it comes to mapping maturity.

  • Firstly, maps don’t have to be contained within bounded groups, like teams. We can look across teams and strata in an organisation and the practices used to meet organisational needs like alignment, reporting, auditing etc.
  • Secondly, we shouldn’t just focus on the practices independent of each other we can also consider and highlight on a map the relationship between them.

Many thanks to Chris Downey for the insight and inspiration, which highlighted the value in visualising the quality of relationships between practices.

Note: I’m making no inference here as to how you should ensure alignment in your organisation. That’s your context 😊

Also note: the above example is just that, and doesn’t reflect a real organisation.

This blog was written by Chris McDermott