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Entrepreneurship for Engineers: Why Team Alignment Matters

Everyone at your startup needs to work together if it’s going to deliver on its vision. Here's some advice for pulling everyone together.
Jan 12th, 2024 5:00am by
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Entrepreneurship for Engineers is a monthly column by longtime New Stack contributor Emily Omier that explores the concerns of developers who want to build tools for other developers — and build a business around their innovations. We welcome your feedback and ideas for future columns.

We all understand that sales teams shouldn’t sell capabilities that don’t exist in the product and that marketing campaigns shouldn’t lie or mislead. We know that at every touchpoint a potential customer has with the company, they should get more or less the same story about what the product does and what business value they should expect to get from it.

We know that the entire company needs to work together if it’s going to deliver on its vision. But getting this level of alignment is hard in practice.

“I would probably say that a third of companies get it sufficiently right,” said Mark Khavkin, a career CFO at technology startups.

How do you know if your team is lacking alignment? And what do you do to increase alignment? Read on.

Misalignment Equals Lost Deals

One sign that an organization lacks alignment is if there’s confusion over messaging, according to Andy Raskin, a strategic narrative consultant.

“Our sales team might be talking about the product in a different way than the engineering team is thinking about the product, or different people in those teams are talking about it in different ways, which leads to confusion,” he said.

That confusion, in turn, leads to deals that could have been won but aren’t.

The way that misalignment leads to lost deals is multifaceted. First of all, it makes the sales cycle much longer, both in terms of how long it takes for a prospect to become a customer — but also in terms of how long it takes to disqualify a prospect, which ultimately wastes everyone’s time.

Second, deals are lost and the company’s resources are wasted because the different parts of the company don’t work together to ensure that everyone is meeting their goals.

To illustrate how misalignment prevents companies from meeting targets, Khavkin offered this example: “Sales has a target of selling product A for X millions of dollars next quarter. But then it turns out that the marketing campaign hasn’t been launched … sales depends on marketing to launch the campaign; marketing depends on product to deliver the product.”

When companies are out of alignment, those dependencies get messed up, ultimately leading to deals that don’t happen, inter-departmental finger pointing and wasted resources.

Different Kinds of Alignment Problems

If you ask five people at a company what the company does, you want to get one answer. If everyone answers not only with different phrasing but with a fundamentally different understanding of the company’s target market and value proposition, you’ve got an alignment problem.

But there are two different types of alignment issues. In the most serious manifestation, the company’s leadership just has no North Star. In this scenario, Khavkin said, there’s “no clear three-year strategy, no clear customer segmentation, no clear understanding that’s shared by everyone at the executive table, no theories of how we add value.”

If the executive team doesn’t put this vision in place, it obviously can’t be shared with the rest of the team, leaving each individual contributor to make things up for themselves as they go.

The second, somewhat less serious form of misalignment is when the executive team does have a clear idea about all of the above, but fails to communicate it within their teams.

This is only somewhat less serious than a complete lack of vision at the exec level, though, because often these types of miscommunication happen because of a lack of trust between executives.

Yet the end result is the same: Teams that don’t work together, miscommunication about dependencies and customers that get wildly different messages about what the product’s value proposition is.

Improving Alignment

What can you do as a leader to improve alignment both with your co-founders and exec team and throughout the company? Here are some concrete tactics for improving alignment.

Identify a North Star for what value your company aims to create for customers, which that will guide your actions, and your team’s actions and decisions when you’re not in the room.

If you, as a leader, can’t articulate a product vision, a company vision, a specific target market and your product’s fundamental value proposition, you need to address that first, either by working with advisers or by hashing it out on your own.

Adjust your pitch from “Here’s our awesome product” to “Here’s the shift in the world we believe in.” Aim to create a movement, not just sell a product.

This structure not only helps you win over customers but also gives the rest of the company a vision to rally around.

Write it down. Make sure that your company’s fundamental mission, customer segments, value proposition,  and positioning are written down and shareable. If you rely on oral or ad-hoc transmission of your company’s fundamental mission, the chances of even a 20-person team being all on the same page are extremely low.

Work at it. “Alignment is just like a human relationship,” Khavkin said. “It always takes effort to maintain it and have it in a good place.”

Don’t expect to do one alignment exercise and be done. Both your products and the competitive ecosystem you operate in are going to be constantly in flux, and keeping your team as aligned as possible around your product vision and how it fits into the larger ecosystem is a never-ending task.

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