Written by Jess Reif
“Nothing is new except what has been forgotten.” – Marie Antoinette
Though all companies grow differently, most have a common goal: to maintain the focus and level of energy they had when they were just a small team. This becomes very challenging as an enterprise takes on more employees, business lines, and customers. Though many of today’s stories of high growth take place in fast-paced technology companies, a look at the history of Arlington, Virginia can prepare us for one of the biggest obstacles companies with a “hockey stick” trajectory face: a lack of internal alignment.
At CrossLead, headquartered in Washington DC, we needn’t look further than our Virginia neighbor to learn a powerful lesson about the challenges of a high-growth environment. Home to over 220,000 residents and 33 companies, Arlington, VA is a city in its own right. A modern map of Arlington might lead you to believe that the city was designed by a careful urban planning team. Its neat alphabetical and numbered street names appear highly organized, rivaling the methodical grids of much larger metropolises like New York and Chicago. Yet, such structure was not the result of meticulous planning, but rather from painful re-organization in the 1930s. The history of Arlington’s infrastructure provides a cautionary tale to those leading growing companies or managing teams within them.
In 1896, the first electric trolley line from Washington DC to Arlington gave rise to decades of continuous growth in the once sleepy town. As city transportation became more accessible across Arlington, neighborhoods began to form around the transit systems. With a population increase of over 350% between 1900 and 1930, Arlington’s population grew with no end in sight. Developers worked tirelessly to keep up, building roads, homes, and public buildings as quickly as they could.
As Arlington grew, the lack of coordination between developers became as obvious as it was inconvenient. There were dozens of streets called Arlington, Lee, and Washington scattered throughout the city, as well as many other duplicative names and conflicting addresses. A particular house number could lead you to several different locations, and goods were frequently delivered to the wrong place. The city was a navigational nightmare. In 1932, the U.S. Postal Service put its foot down and refused to service Arlington as a single postal area until it adopted a unified addressing system. Arlington complied and overhauled its street map in favor of the grid-like system it has today. This costly “re-org” imposed a major burden on its citizens, who had to reorient themselves to their neighborhoods and even re-learn their own home addresses.
While rapid growth creates incredible opportunities, it also creates unique challenges for businesses and cities alike. Maintaining a shared sense of purpose and understanding of what success looks like becomes more difficult as a company grows. The small-team dynamics that enable start-ups to be agile and responsive to market demands become harder to maintain as employees are added. Furthermore, as teams grow and become narrowly focused on their own priorities, they may lose sight of how their actions affect other teams in the organization. Businesses with growth curves mirroring that of Arlington are often on a much shorter timeline, and therefore an overhaul of their systems and processes is a daunting, if not impossible, task.
In the same way a meeting between Arlington’s many developers could have prevented chaos, upfront communication and alignment between teams can prevent similar challenges for businesses. One powerful tool for keeping companies aligned as they grow is the Alignment Triangle. Though organizations use a variety of names for this device, the premise is fairly simple. A company and its teams should set priorities that support its vision. Guided by a set of shared values, the organization should set an objective (or several objectives) for each of its teams. That objective is met by adopting particular strategies supported by business initiatives.
Unlike typical goal-cascading tools, the Alignment Triangle anchors teams to both vertical and horizontal alignment, enabling informed prioritization up, down, and across the organization. This is particularly useful for growing companies, whose growth will undoubtedly have both vertical and horizontal impacts. If an activity in one part of the organization affects an activity in another part of the organization, that dependency can be visualized and understood in an Alignment Triangle. This upfront coordination prevents efforts across different business units from conflicting as the entity grows. The CrossLead Platform has automated this process such that gaps in alignment can be discovered in real-time.
To test easily for alignment (or mis-alignment) between teams, ask these simple questions:
- Does success for my team require effort from another team?
- Does another team require effort from my team to be successful?
- If asked the mission of our company, would members of my team and members of other teams offer the same response?
- Do teams across the organization have enough understanding of what the other teams are doing to recognize when there are opportunities for synergy or conflicts?
As companies grow, maintaining alignment becomes both more difficult and more important. Arlington proved that, while it is possible to recover, a lack of synchronization in the early days can lead to a painful and expensive awakening down the road.
 Lacy Car Barn Marker. Arlington, VA. National Database of Historical Markers. Retrieved 17 March 2017. http://www.webcitation.org/6NjjJzD0f
 United States Census Bureau. Census of Population and Housing. Retrieved 17 March 2017. http://www.census.gov/prod/www/decennial.html
 “Do you know what your street used to be named?” Arlington, VA Public Library Archives. Retrieved 17 March 2017. http://library.arlingtonva.us/2013/01/15/do-you-know-what-your-street-used-to-be-named-back-pages/
Jess leads our Analytics Team, expertly managing our statistics and analytics processes. She creates tailored organizational performance diagnostics and network analysis for clients, to help them better understand how their organizations are functioning.
Jess comes to CrossLead after diverse experience in the management consulting industry. She graduated from Cornell University with a BS in Industrial and Labor Relations.