If you’ve spent much time with a five-year-old, you’ve experienced their insatiable appetite for knowledge, illustrated by a near-constant refrain: “Why?”

As we get older, our innate sense of curiosity is crowded out by the demands of working life, and often the pressure to complete a task outweighs our motivation to seek more information. There have probably been many times you’ve thought, “Let me just get this thing done so it’s off my plate.” In the face of mounting pressure to deliver, many of us have stifled our sense of curiosity.

The evolution of work: from task do-ers to problem-solvers

Organizations have evolved over the last century to be spaces where we ask “what?” and “how?” but not “why?” Early management theory pioneers such as Frederick Winslow Taylor, author of The Principles of Scientific Management, focused on the efficiency of work over all other variables. Managers were considered experts in the areas they supported, and employees simply needed to follow the instructions laid out by management – no need to waste any time asking why. 

For many jobs in the 19th and 20th centuries, the era of mass production, this approach made sense. If you needed to make 100,000 units of the same widget, there probably was a pretty straightforward and repeatable way to do it – so management needed expert “doers” to achieve efficiency.

Today’s problems are a little more complex. Now, we need expert problem-solvers to find efficient solutions. The modern organization needs to move quickly and respond to change faster in order to compete in our new global marketplace. With the breakneck speed of technology innovations and ever-evolving customer expectations, it’s projected that nearly half the organizations in today’s S&P 500 will be replaced in just ten years. The nature of work has also drastically changed, with more jobs requiring knowledge work rather than physical labor. In this environment, a manager is no longer considered the top expert; yet organizations still assume management will simply tell employees what to do and how to do it. Senior leaders see that they’re stuck and ask, “How do we change how we work?” and, “What do we need to do to change?” 

Notice a three-letter word missing from those questions?

The first step to organizational alignment: Declare a shared purpose

So why should an organization – especially its leaders – care so much about people who ask why? It’s because responding to the innate curiosity of team members leads to overall better outcomes: more employee engagement, more collaboration, and increased innovation. And this approach comes through in the products you bring to market.

Simon Sinek, the author of several best-selling books, including Start With Why, put it best: People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it. Customers appreciate a thoughtfully produced product designed by people who want to solve their problems.

Sinek’s quote applies not just to an organization’s customers, but to internal teams, too. One of the most important things senior leaders can do for organizational alignment is to clarify why the business exists and who it serves, and then get buy-in from the teams who build products for customers. 

Ultimately, a successful organization will see everyone from the CEO to entry-level employees aligned around the company’s mission. This is how you get to the next step – knowing what your teams need to do to carry out that mission, and how they’re going to do it.

How organizational alignment leads to empowered teams

When you build alignment within the organization around a shared understanding, whether it’s of the primary objectives for the year or why you’re prioritizing one piece of work over another, you gain team alignment, and individuals experience an important shift in their relationship to their work. And what we find is that empowered teams experience markedly better outcomes. 

Empowered teams = increased motivation

Did you know that empowered teams are more engaged with their work and motivated to get stuff done? Did you also know that in the U.S., a report found that 85 percent of employees are not engaged in the workplace? That’s scary! 

When you invest more energy into gaining team alignment with organizational objectives, people feel more invested in delivering a successful outcome. They are no longer simple task-takers and will bring all of their accumulated knowledge and skills to the work.  

Organizational alignment = team autonomy

Autonomy means having permission to make independent decisions. When people have autonomy, they take ownership of the outcome they’re working towards. If a manager assigns a task to a team, they will probably execute it as instructed, even if they don’t agree with the approach. Managers who strive for team alignment with organizational objectives instead present a problem for teams to solve, and the reason its resolution is important to the business. Then, team members have the freedom to use their collective experience and skills to deliver a solution that is, in all likelihood, better. Giving teams this level of autonomy also frees up the manager to focus on higher-level problems.

Team alignment = more innovation

When teams have sufficient context behind a problem, they’re better able to dream up new ideas and run more productive experiments. When we are too explicit with our task assignments and tell teams how to do their jobs, we stifle creativity and innovation. When we give people the freedom to dream big and take risks, they may even seek out other teams in the organization to join in the work, expanding the reach of organizational alignment. Encouraging risk-taking and experimentation allows for the best solutions to come forward – not just the first one.

Clear context = better performance

Remember how Frederick Taylor’s form of management focused first on efficiency? The important thing to remember about efficiency is that it’s not the same as effectiveness. If you do a lot of things quickly, but none of them move the needle, you may be efficient – but you’ve actually wasted time. When teams know the purpose behind their efforts, they can come up with solutions that are both efficient and impactful. For example, instead of blindly repeating steps 1-5 in a process, when teams have full knowledge of a problem, they may realize they can eliminate steps 1-3 and deliver the same outcome in less time with less effort. Giving people a clear objective increases their engagement with the work, and they’ll probably exceed your expectations with the results.

How to unlock the power of why in Jira Align

We now know whythe why is important, but how can we make sure teams have the context they need to understand the problems they’re solving? It’s important to share context at both a team and organizational level, and there are a few ways you can do just that.

Unlocking why for teams 

A well-known and reliable way to document context for teams is with the traditional user story, typically made up of three parts:

That third point is crucial to teams if you want engineers to deliver the best solution. You could just give them specs to follow, but sharing insight into the user’s actual needs encourages design solutions that deliver value to customers.

Unlocking why for organizations

We know that giving teams business context and customer insights is important to successful outcomes, so we built this capability right into Jira Align. This feature – literally called the Why button – gives teams a shared understanding of the objective of their work.  

This feature helps managers communicate organizational intent and direction for work in Jira Align. When your team needs to understand the broader objectives that their work is contributing to, they can click on the Why button and read contextual information such as:

The people who really benefit from seeing this information are the engineers doing the work, and they’re not typically in Jira Align, but mainly in Jira. What can we do to help them? You can send the information in the Why button down to Jira for each integrated feature. Team members need only go to a feature in Jira and they will get all the context they need.

More context leads to better organizational alignment

Helping people understand why they’re working on something allows them to make better decisions, which leads to more engaged and motivated teams, products that meet customers’ needs, and outcomes that propel the business forward. And with Jira Align, giving this context is easy to do in a repeatable way, ensuring consistently innovative product delivery. 

As you prepare for your team’s next program increment or sprint, ask yourself if you’ve given them all the information they need to do their best work. And if you want to see how Jira Align can help you do just that, reach out and we can show you!

The three-letter word that unlocks organizational change