18 August 2015
Alignment maps are organizational information radiators that help visualize the alignment of ongoing work with business outcomes. The work may be regular functionality addition or technical work such as re-architecting or repaying technical debt or improving the build and deployment pipeline. Team members use alignment maps to understand what business outcomes their day-to-day work is meant to improve. Business and IT sponsors use them to understand how ongoing work relates to the business outcomes they care about.
Here’s an example scenario (inspired by real life) that illustrates how these maps may be useful. A team of developers had inefficiently implemented a catalog search function as N+1 calls. The first call to the catalog index returned a set of SKU IDs. For each ID returned, a query was then made to retrieve product detail. The implementation came to the attention of an architect when it failed performance tests. He advised the team to get rid of the N+1 implementation.
“Search-in-one” was the mantra he offered the team as a way to remember their objective. Given the organizational boundary between architects and developers and the low frequency of communication between them, the mantra was taken literally. The team moved heaven and earth to implement a combined index query and detail query in a single call. They lost sight of the real objective of improving search performance and slogged away in an attempt to achieve acceptable performance in exactly one call. Funding ran out in a few months and after some heated discussions, the project was cancelled and the team disbanded.
The above example may seem absurd but sadly, enterprise IT is no stranger to architecture and business projects that are cancelled after a while because they lost sight of why they were funded in the first place. In the terminology of organizational design, these are problems of alignment.
Broadly, IT strategy has to align with business strategy and IT outcomes with desired business outcomes. A business outcome may be supported (in part) by one or more IT outcomes. Each IT outcome may be realized by one or more initiatives (program of work—architectural or business). At this point, it may also be useful to identify an owner for each initiative who then sponsors work (action items) across multiple teams as part of executing the initiative. Depending on the initiative the owner may be a product owner, architect, tech lead or manager. Here's an alignment map for the “search-in-one” case. Had it been in public display in the team’s work area, it might have prompted someone to take a step back and ask what their work was really meant to achieve.
A global alignment map for the IT (appdev+ops) organization may look more like this (although real maps tend to be much larger).
As with all information radiators, such a map is a snapshot in time and needs to be updated regularly (say once a month). Each team displays a big printout of the global map in its work area.
Big organizations are likely to realize value early in this exercise by collaborating to come up with a version 1.0 of such a map that everyone agrees to. The discussions around who owns what initiatives and what outcomes an initiative contributes to leads to a fair bit of organizational clarity of what everyone is up to. Usually, the absence of well-articulated and commonly understood business and IT strategies come in the way of converging on a set of business and IT outcomes. Well-facilitated workshops with deep and wide participation across the relevant parts of the organization can help address this.
Tracing alignment paths
Once a global alignment map is in place, it allows us to trace alignment from either end. IT and business sponsors can trace what action items are in play under a given initiative. Development team members can trace through the map to understand the real purpose of items they are working on. In addition to in-progress items, we could also include action items that are planned, done or blocked.
As illustrated in the map above, each team highlights their section of the map on their copy of the global map.
Qualitative benefits validation
Once a month (or quarter), IT and business people get together to validate if all the IT activity has made any difference to business outcomes. Business people come to the meeting with red-amber-green (RAG) statues for business outcomes and IT people may come with RAG statues for their side of the map. Both parties need to be able to back up their RAG assessments with data and/or real stories from the trenches (narrative evidence).
These maps can be combined
With this the group may realize that:
- Some outcomes have turned green as compared to the previous meeting. Perhaps customer retention turned green after the last release of the responsive rewrite initiative.
- Not all IT activity is making the expected difference to
business outcomes. This provides an opportunity to discuss why
this may be the case. Perhaps because:
- It is a little early in the day. Other planned items need to complete before we can expect a difference. This is probably why, in the map above, customer acquisition is red even though site UX is green. Platform unbundling is still incomplete.
- The initiatives and action items are sensible but a different execution approach is needed (this is the reason in case of “search-in-one”).
- A different initiative or set of actions are required and existing ones are better cancelled. Something outside of IT has to fall into place before the business can realize value.
- A few business outcomes are green even though the related IT initiatives aren’t. This probably means IT matters less to this outcome than other non-IT factors. In the map above, this is probably why customer retention is green even though site performance isn’t. Perhaps IT means to say that performance isn’t where it should be although it hasn’t affected retention just yet.
To summarize, alignment maps provide a common organization-wide tool to discuss the extent to which different IT initiatives are paying off. They could also improve the ability to make sense of ongoing work and bring it greater alignment with business objectives. I haven't used this technique enough yet to claim general effectiveness, although I do think it shows enough promise. If you try this out I'd be glad to hear about experiences with it.
AcknowledgementsThanks to Jim Gumbley, Kief Morris and Vinod Sankaranarayanan for their inputs. Special thanks to Martin Fowler for his guidance with the content and help with publishing.
I describe other information radiators that help the cause of organizational agility in my book Agile IT Organization Design. My companion web site at www.agileorgdesign.com contains links to further writing and my talks.
Lars Barkman has posted details on how to construct an alignment map with graphviz.