January 9, 2024

Your projects for a new year, don’t just prioritise, align

By Paul Laughlin

Each new year, many data leaders realise a need to focus anew on what is most important but fail to align their plans.

What do I mean by that statement? From my decade of experience in coaching such leaders, I’ve learnt that many carry a constant sense of overload. A gut-level realisation that their plans & commitments are over-ambitious. Often the milestone of a new year sparks an effort of reprioritisation.

This is a noble aim. Many are correct that their teams are overcommitted and focussing on less change, delivered well, would make a better impact. However, I’ve also learnt from my own mistakes that they may be missing a trick. In this post, I will share the benefits of aligning your work.

What is alignment?

Let me explain what I mean by alignment, as there are two complementary meanings. Firstly, I mean align your work with organisational priorities. Secondly, I mean align your prioritised work across all your team(s).

The first meaning emphasises classic strategic alignment. You may have experienced CEOs, FDs or other leaders undertake this from time to time. Culling projects that don’t align strongly with helping to achieve the agreed strategy. But all too often such focus does not permeate down to technical functions. Data leaders can help their teams by undertaking similar critiques of intended projects and business-as-usual workloads for the year.

By the second meaning, I mean to focus more on the effective collaboration of those doing this work. As data & analytics functions have grown and recognised more specialisms it has at times become more like herding cats. All too often I discover that data engineers, analysts & data scientists have different isolated projects. As well as missing the benefits of greater collaboration it can foster a different view of what matters most. In other words unaligned priorities.

How could it help my team this year?

Why do I think this matters? Well, the short answer would be that I have seen leaders benefit by focusing on such alignment actions. In coaching and other conversations, they have self-reported greater clarity of purpose, focus of action and achieved impact. At a leadership level, all this certainly improves their perception & has helped some gain more general management promotions.

But, perhaps more importantly, I have seen it help those they serve (their teams). The “doers” on any project benefit from understanding the “why” for that project. Why does it matter? Why is it a priority now? How will the organisation be improved when this is delivered? When data leaders communicate a rationale for culling some work & prioritising other work (in conversation with technical expertise) they enable such clarity for their teams too.

Turning again to that second definition, work on aligning plans across your technical teams can also identify opportunities for collaboration. As different technical managers hear proposed priorities from other teams (and how they enable the organisation’s strategy) they often also notice how they can help. Technical silos are almost always a hindrance. More communication across specialisms can identify where more analysis, planning for execution or even data capture can enable a better result. It can also be a motivating workshop.

How can I get started on alignment?

Let’s assume you are convinced. It’s likely that you next want to ask how you can get started. Well, I’ve done this poorly before I learnt to do it well and work with clients to do it even better. So, let me share a couple of final tips that may set you up for more success in your alignment endeavour.

It is often a good idea to start a new initiative with a humble attitude. Here as well, I encourage you to recognise that you probably do not understand your organisation’s strategy & priorities as well as you think. So, go and chat with your strategy and/or finance director. Set yourself the ambition of being able to simplify what may be a complex strategy into a few key principles and a list of no more than 5 themes. Plus, without notes, be able to say why these are top.

Next, once you are clear and can educate others, enlist all your direct reports and any others to cover the technical teams across your patch. Explain that although you have a clear vision as to strategic priorities & where technical skills should be used to realise that, you need their help. Don’t just impose your plans. Pick their brains on what this would mean in practice. Where is some work easier or harder than you realised? Where are there synergies (killing multiple birds with one stone)? Your aligned priorities for the team(s) will be more realistic & you’ll achieve buy-in.

I wish you well this year & hope a focus on alignment as well as prioritisation helps your annual (re)planning. Now go and make a difference this year!