Alignment

One of the most common complaints I hear from stakeholders in large companies is that their colleagues in other parts of the organization are working in “silos.” By this, they mean these people have their own goals, incentives, processes, systems, and structures that make it difficult for them to work together towards a common goal. By talking about “silos,” they are expressing their frustration about the differences between them. However, these different parts of the organization need different systems and structures; you don’t want all these groups to think and work identically since that would make them ineffective. What you want is for them to be in alignment.

The word “alignment” has roots in the Latin linea, which means “line.” When we align, we bring ourselves in line with each other: our trajectories become parallel. Note this doesn’t mean our lines become one: we still have different trajectories, but now those trajectories point in the same direction. We agree on the goal we’re striving towards, even if our methods are different.

Design can help different parts of the organization come into alignment. The way we most people communicate in business settings — talking about what we’re doing, perhaps augmenting the words with spreadsheets or presentations — leaves a lot to the imagination. We parse language through our own perspectives, which are shaped by our belonging to different groups. You and I may think we’re on the same page, but in reality, ​we have divergent expectations. Design helps make the impact of decisions tangible; it allows us to test scenarios. It’s difficult to misunderstand when you and I and end users can see and touch an artifact that embodies the direction we’re pointing towards.

Designers help create better products and services. But we also help organizations come into alignment. Currently, design is acknowledged in the business world for the former but not the latter. As designers, we haven’t done enough to emphasize the strategic value that comes with being able to simulate and test future states. It’s time we change that.