Productivity Versus Alignment

One of the many trade-offs companies face


Steve Jobs famously laid out his offices to facilitate employees bumping into each other. “When Steve Jobs designed a new headquarters for Pixar,” wrote his biographer Walter Isaacson, “he obsessed over ways to structure the atrium, and even where to locate the bathrooms, so that serendipitous personal encounters would occur.” The thinking was that the more he could get people to interact (particularly people from different teams), the more likely it was that they’d think outside the box and innovate.

Many others have adopted this philosophy. And while the strategy certainly might lead to a bit more ideation, I would argue, the increased alignment between disparate teams likely had a negative impact on productive innovation.

In my experience, no matter where you work, things are less productive than you’d want, and there’s less alignment than you’d hope for.

Why does this happen?

As individuals become stakeholders to a project, the number of communication channels between them rises exponentially. Doing anything company-wide becomes tremendously difficult.

Take a mid-sized tech company introducing a new feature. Product managers need buy in from all the other product managers who own their own respective surfaces. These each need to talk to the designers. The engineers weigh in on what’s feasible. The inability to do certain things causes a new flood of re-definition by the product managers and the designers and the engineers once more. Throw into the mix the lawyers, the accountants, the quality assurance testers, the finance team, and so on. Is it surprising things take so long to get done?

Having so many communication channels both decreases everyone’s productivity and discourages innovation. That’s because there’s too much organizational overhead to allow things to move quickly, and there’s too much organizational overhead to allow new ideas to get off the ground in the first place.

The Impact of Relationships

The introduction of any new node into a communication system raises the number of stakeholder relationships quadratically. If you only have two stakeholders, there is one relationship. Introduce a third stakeholder, and you’re up to three relationships. In a team of 50? Now you have 1,225 relationships to consider between all of your employees.

The formula that governs this is:

Of course, if you had 50 employees and didn’t have any of them talk to one another, or forced them to only communicate with a small number of colleagues, you’d run into other problems. The dissemination of information is key. The incorporation of stakeholder inputs into product development is key. All of these things necessitate that people talk to one another. Leave the legal team out of a new feature exploration, and you may find out too late what you want to do isn’t accounted for in your terms of service. Forget to call the accounting team, and they may later discover the negative margin impact of your idea.

And so we’ve reached an impasse. On the one hand, we want to reduce the number of communication channels to avoid “too many cooks in the kitchen.” On the other hand, we want to have enough communication channels so that all relevant stakeholders can weigh in.

The Slippery Slope

We can graph what’s happening here. On one axis, productivity. On the other, alignment. The more your team members or sub-organizations need to be in sync, the less quickly they will execute their goals (because of the overhead of communicating). Conversely, the more you want to focus on productivity, efficiency, new feature creation, etc., the less your teams will be able to keep up with each other.

I’ve drawn a similar graph before in this newsletter. Several months ago, I wrote about the concept of The Push and Pull of Building Products, suggesting that there was a similar mathematical trade-off between focusing on the needs of your existing customers and focusing on the needs of the new ones.

In both graphs, a company is positioned somewhere along this curve. And that’s the case whether they choose their position or not. So they might as well choose their position.

In the Steve Jobs anecdote, there seems to be an explicit decision to be placed in the upper left hand corner of the first graph:

And this shouldn’t be surprising. Apple is notorious for unmatched internal alignment amongst its teams, a feat necessary to achieve such clean and integrated user experiences. Consider, for instance, how many different functions the three buttons on the sides of your iPhone serve depending on the context. Consider the thousands of employees at Apple that had to coordinate the who/what/where/when/why of such a limited interface across such a diverse set of user requirements.

And now consider how many years it must have taken those thousands of employees to reach alignment and consensus.

Choosing Your Place

I’m not sure there is a right answer to the productivity/alignment trade-off, nor that there ever could be. But I do believe that, as with all trade-offs, the only thing worse than either option (or anything in between) is not being active in choosing which you want. Being passive allows the winds of randomness or fate to govern where you land, and nobody wins.

It’s worth repeating: The trade-off of productivity and alignment happens whether or not a company explicitly chooses the relative balance. So they might as well choose it.

I’m brought back to my own startup days, when we explicitly made the decision to iterate quickly at all costs. Granted, our team wasn’t Apple-sized, but even at the small scale of 20 or 25 individuals, misalignment was plentiful and frustrating. But at least it was a weakness we’d deliberately chosen.

I’ve explored before how, for an early stage startup, it is critical to iterate quickly because of the likelihood of errors in your convictions. There is a great parallel to computer programming concepts here, which I’ll save for a later article.

Suffice it to say that when a company chooses to have a meeting between stakeholders, it better be sure it knows why. And when a company chooses to cancel a meeting between stakeholders, it better be sure it knows why.

Final word today goes to writer Dave Barry, who once said this quote I encourage us all to remember:

If you had to identify, in one word, the reason why the human race has not achieved, and never will achieve, its full potential, that word would be: Meetings.

What’s Next?

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