Can-alignment-save-your-startup

Can alignment save your startup?

August 30, 2019
Igor Volzhanin

How often has a project gone awry and taken much longer because people had different ideas about the end goal? More to the point, how often has a company stumbled because employees pulled in different directions?

As a startup gets bigger, identifying priorities gets harder – and alignment toward the same goal becomes something that is not just nice-to-have, but completely vital to success. Without alignment, getting things done with any speed becomes almost impossible.

What is alignment?

I define alignment as: everyone in the company having the same answer to the following question: “What is the company’s main short, medium and long term goals?”

In a well-aligned company everyone shares and understands the vision and is able to answer the ‘main goal’ question with ease. The effect is that all the work being done is done in the pursuit of the same, shared goal.

alignment-startup-save

Alignment is what gets things done

When everyone is aligned, speed of execution increases, as everyone understands what they should be doing, how they fit into the overall picture and each decision they make gets the company closer to the overall objective. Speed of execution is one of the most crucial weapons a startup has and alignment is one of the most important ingredients to achieve it.

On the other hand, if employees are misaligned, they end up doing the work that they think is important, but which does not necessarily lead to the overall success. Imagine a situation where your CTO thinks the most important thing the company can do is to release a new spell-check feature (say for a word processor), while your Head of Sales is focused on selling the ability to edit images. Whoops!

This is more common than you may realise: while researching this piece, I discovered that a truly painful 95% of employees are unsure of their company’s vision. Just imagine how much lost time and wasted energy that adds up to.

The good news is that there are a few changes a startup can make which will go a long way to achieving alignment. Since this article is part of our Datasine culture series, I’ll talk about how defining company values and culture contributed to our own alignment – and led to significantly increased productivity.

“The way a team plays as a whole determines its success. You may have the greatest bunch of individual stars in the world, but if they don’t play together, the club won’t be worth a dime” – Babe Ruth

Defining values

Now, I’ve already written about how we came to realise that defining our company culture was important. After growing from a team of three (where we initially alternated between intense video game marathons and hackathons) to an office of 20+, it became clear that defining our values was key to creating a universal Datasine culture.

There’s a lot of traditional reasons to have values as part of your company culture. They help identify your brand. They help separate you from the competition. They encourage customer trust.

But for us at Datasine, values helped create a culture that makes alignment front and centre.

Our ABCDEs

We call our values the ‘ABCDEs of Datasine’.

Adventure

I usually refer to Datasine as a pirate ship. While everyone is steering toward a common goal, there’s no rigid structure. Instead, there’s a company-wide expectation that everyone pitch in and do the best they can do.

This value starts with hiring where we try as much as possible to employ people from non-traditional backgrounds (something I’ll be writing about more over the next few months), so they can grow on the job and naturally align to this adventurous value.

alignment-startup-productivity

Balance

This may not fit into the work hard/play hard mentality that many startups champion, but work/life balance is so important to us. I’ve had burnouts building Datasine and it is absolutely not a good thing. Instead we encourage people not to work on weekends, to work their contracted hours and take breaks.

What’s more, we try to help people balance out the tasks they don’t like doing with ones they enjoy. You simply cannot expect people to care about your company’s mission if you don’t care about them.

Collaboration

We collaborate extensively within the company. For example, some of our biggest decisions were made by everyone: the name of our new product, Connect Pro, was decided by a Slack poll, for example.

Additionally, being a small and nimble startup means all departments collaborate extensively so projects can move much faster. It would be hard to do our work without this value at our very heart.

Diversity

We strive to be as diverse as possible, both in our hiring and day-to-day, because we know that the best ideas come from a diverse, colourful environment like ours. Not to mention, diverse teams are proven to bring about faster change and make better business decisions.

Ethics

As a data company using machine learning and psychology, ethics has always been at the forefront of what we do. Early on, we decided we would work to our own ethics test: if a person were to see all the information we hold about them, would they be comfortable? If not, we change our approach.

Our end goal is to make sure customers receive more personal and less generic content that fatigues them, but we would never infringe their privacy to reach that goal. As such, we’ve spent a lot of time building out ethical frameworks ever since we started in 2015, even before GDPR.

What alignment looks like to us

What I’ve noticed since we defined our values and our culture is that there’s been a shift in how we all interact as it’s crystalised in people’s minds what we actually stand for. This helps us enjoy what we do and work better – and faster.

I catch myself coming back to these values daily. I’ll see departments forgetting to coordinate, and remind them that collaboration is important. I’ll see people sending emails on a Sunday, and encourage them to find more balance – and give themselves a break.

What’s more, again and again I’ve seen employees turning to these values as a framework for their own behaviour.

Alignment, achieved through our culture and clearly defined values, is what has turned us from a simple idea to a Series A-funded startup with a number of exciting products just on the horizon. Since finding a way to get on the same page, our team is happier, our product is better and we see results much, much faster. We can guarantee we haven’t looked back.

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