How to keep misalignment from killing your startup
When your car has an alignment issue, it’s difficult to stay on course. The same is true for your company. If everyone isn’t working toward a common goal—if one tire is tilted even slightly—you might just end up in a ditch.
Misalignment is one of the main reasons startups fail. There are infinite causes, but most start as breakdowns in vision, strategy, or communication. This doesn’t happen overnight. Things don’t just blow up. The explosions happen when people avoid difficult conversations.
Here’s the first thing you need to know about managing conflict ...
There’s a difference between “We disagree” and “We’re misaligned.”
Disagreement is a barrier. Misalignment is a variance in direction.
In disagreements, we place less emphasis on others’ ideas and more emphasis on our powers of persuasion. Misalignment, however, is an opportunity to discuss the expectations, visions, goals, and strategies that lead to success.
It’s okay to be misaligned, as long as there’s a next step. It’s a temporary condition. Most startups experience it in one way or another. The key is to identify and acknowledge the problem, so that you can work toward a solution.
If someone mentions the word disagreement, just call it misalignment, and take the necessary steps to reach an understanding.
So where’s the best place to start?
Step 1: Talk about misalignment
Encourage transparency. Find common language. When there’s friction between people or teams, sit down right away and talk things out. This isn’t a matter of convenience. It’s not a discussion to have once all the work is done. If you’re misaligned and your competitors aren’t, you’re done.
Start the conversation by acknowledging misalignment. Don’t give anyone a chance to attack or defend. The goal is simply to reach an understanding.
Let’s say, for example, that you and your co-founder battle constantly. Things were going well, but recently there’s been some friction. It’s not uncommon, especially within startups. The first step is to find a conference room or park bench, sit down with your co-founder, and say, “Hey, I think we’re misaligned. Here are a few things I’ve noticed.” Provide as much detail as you can, and present the facts as you see them.
Then ask, “Where’s the difference in what you’re thinking versus what I just laid out?” Remember, you’re on a mission to understand each person’s position relative to the goals of the business. The more questions you ask, the more you’ll learn.
Step 2: Write down your expectations
Write down your expectations for each other and the company.
Ideally, you’d do this before starting a business together, but there’s never a bad time for this step. It’s great for misalignments big and small, and it works for co-founders, teams, employees, anybody.
Hiten likes to call these alignment documents. Your alignment document solidifies expectations and serves as a resource for the rest of the company.
Going back to the co-founder scenario, you could start with questions like:
- What do you want out of this company?
- What are your values?
- What are the company’s values?
- What does our future look like?
- What are our next steps?
You might answer 2 questions or 20. By answering as many as you can, you keep the conversation moving forward, and you move one step closer to alignment.
It’s a valuable exercise that should lead to the final step ...
Step 3: Get aligned
Look at the document you’ve drawn up and ask, “How can we achieve what we set out to achieve?”
There are usually one or two items that can be addressed right away. Maybe your co-founder has an opinion on which new features should be prioritized. Or you think the company isn’t investing enough resources in scaling growth. This is your opportunity to discuss solvable issues.
But what if the misalignment speaks to a bigger problem?
Your co-founder might say, “I want to sell the company.”
Some people would scream after hearing this news, but you have to take emotion out of it. Just say, “Why do you want to sell? I want to stay with this company forever, so I need to understand where you’re coming from.”
Your co-founder might not see a future for the startup or believe in the product you’re developing, which could be something you never considered. Go ahead and ask follow-ups like, “Why do think we don’t have a future?”
That’s a different conversation altogether, but at least you’re getting to the root of why you’re misaligned.
If you review the document and realize that there aren’t any next steps—you’re at an impasse—the good news is that you’ll know before it’s too late. You’ve had the conversation, even if it was uncomfortable, and now it’s time for a larger discussion about how to proceed.
Think about alignment as a way to reduce friction
Ultimately, it’s disagreement that keeps you from making any real progress. People stop communicating. They harbor resentment. Their tires fight the road. The companies that move faster than everyone else—either through innovation or market share—address these problems right away. They recognize misalignment and take immediate action.
If you feel the competition pulling ahead, if conflicts cause your company to veer left and right, there’s a simple solution: take the car in for a tune-up. What that tune-up entails will be different for each company and each situation, but the process is still the same. Talk about the problem, write down your expectations, and decide—as a group—on a path that will lead to success.
Then, and only then, will your startup be ready for the long road ahead.
To help keep your startup on the right track, Steli and Hiten put together a guide on how to scale your startup called From 0 to 1,000 Customers & Beyond. Click below to grab your free copy.
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