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Rectangle or Oval?

A college professor’s students had an unusual project working for a local district judge. The assignment: Investigate the jury deliberation process and determine how to improve it. As young, idealistic college students, his team was excited to tackle such a noble mission.

The students interviewed dozens of judges, attorneys, former jurors, and other court officials around the district. They asked questions you would think a smart group of would-be consultants would ask:

• How many men are in the jury versus women?
• What was the mix of ethnic backgrounds?
• How many older jurors were there versus younger ones?
• Were there differences in the instructions given to the jurors?
• What kind of information were they allowed to have in the jury room?
• Did the trials last days, weeks or months?
• How late were the jurors asked to work?
• What kind of food were the jurors fed?

To their surprise, none of those things seemed to matter much. What did matter, it turned out, was the shape of the table in the jury room!! In courtroom where there was a rectangular table, the juror sitting at the head of the table (even if that person wasn’t the jury foreman) tended to dominate the conversation. This kept some jurors from sharing their points of view as openly. But in jury rooms that had a round or oval table, the jurors tended to be more egalitarian, and their debate of the facts was thorough and robust. The team concluded it was those juries with round tables that came to the most accurate and just verdicts.

The students were excited about this finding for two reasons:

1. They felt they really nailed the key to improving the jury deliberation process.
2. It was such an easy thing to change.

Imagine, instead, if their conclusion had been that the jury needed to be seated with more intelligent, open-minded, better-educated jurists. That’s much harder to do.

They were proud of their success as they presented their results to the chief judge. He was just as excited as they were and for the same two reasons. The judge immediately issued a decree to all the courthouses in his jurisdiction. Effective immediately, ‘all jury rooms that have round and oval tables are to have the tables removed. Replace them with rectangular tables.’

Read those last two sentences again. That wasn’t a typo. In direct contradiction to their recommendation, the judge removed all round and oval tables and put in rectangular tables. Why? Because the judge’s objective in improving the jury deliberation service process wasn’t to make it more robust, fair, or even accurate. It was to make it faster. He wanted to reduce the backlog of cases clogging up his court docket.

The students were mortified. They thought they were single-handedly fixing the sometimes-brutal consequences of an imperfect judicial system. Instead, they were unwittingly responsible for making it, in their eyes, a little bit less perfect. They may have finished with an A on their report card, but they felt completely defeated.

I came across this story whilst reading Paul Smith’s fantastic book, “Lead with a Story,” some years ago, and it really stuck with me. So much so that when I was asked to write a piece on Alignment which is our focus this quarter at Interaworks, this story immediately came to mind.

Alignment is a hot topic. Experts agree that it can increase employee engagement and maximise company profits. In fact, research shows highly aligned companies grow revenue 58% faster, are 72% more profitable, and outperform unaligned peers in employee engagement, customer satisfaction, and employee attrition.

Building and maintaining team alignment has never been easy, and now the reality of remote working and increasingly hybrid working are throwing new challenges into the mix.

Many companies and managers are still adjusting to their new way of working and their teams have fallen out of alignment during the shift. Remote work strips out a lot of the unplanned communication, like the water cooler chat and other interactions, that foster alignment. Some remote managers are feeling they have lost their visibility into work and are unsure if their employees are focussed on the right things – those things that matter most.

So, let me ask you, if you see a picture or photograph on the wall that is hanging crooked, do you feel the need to straighten it? I’m sure it nags you until you finally set it right. Most of us possess an innate desire for things to line up. Team alignment is really no different.

We all want our teams to be cohesive, coordinated, and collaborative. Every member of the company, from the top down, craves this alignment. Only when you achieve it can your business be at its best.

Let’s first look at how alignment is defined. Team alignment is when every member of your team understands and supports the shared vision and goals, knows how they are going to help the team achieve them, and understands and is happy with their own role in that journey. It is not just about being aligned to the goal and vision and how to achieve them, it’s more than that. The more often overlooked dimension is aligning people so they truly understand ‘the why’ and are happy with their role in that journey. Then and only then, when both dimensions are in alignment, are you truly aligned and great things happen.

This is why I chose to kick off with the story about the law students. They achieved the goal and thought they were aligned to the vision but unfortunately, they weren’t, and they were left feeling completely deflated. In a business context this would be disengaged employees, and we all know what an impact this has on a team.

The benefits of an aligned team speak for themselves:

Aligned teams perform better. Everyone has the right information they need to make the right decisions, work quickly, and prioritise their work to what matters most. Because team members truly understand why they are doing what they are doing, they will go the extra mile.

Aligned teams are more engaged. Team members understand the importance of their role and the role of their colleagues, and they believe in the team vision. This creates a sense of camaraderie and belonging which makes team members happier and more content.

Aligned teams are more collaborative. It is a lot easier to collaborate when you’re coming at a problem with a shared outcome in mind. People are more willing to collaborate and to support one another because they are all aligned on goals and what it takes to get there.

If the benefits speak for themselves, the question must be how do we ensure we have alignment in our teams?

Here are some top tips to consider.

Take a key role in communicating company strategy
Leaders and managers must take on this responsibility for their team and make sure it is truly understood. Have you ever played the children’s game ‘Telephone’? By the time the message gets to the end of a long line of people, its content has likely been drastically altered beyond recognition. Sound familiar? Miscommunication costs businesses billions every year – do you want to add to that total? Being clear on vison, goals, and accountability results in 2.8x more engaged employees. If you as a leader or manager are not crystal clear, then take steps to seek clarity. You will then know what truly matters most and then in turn make sure your team are in the same position.

Connect everyday tasks and efforts to what matters most
Employees have many tasks on their agenda each day, and they’re trusted to choose which should be accomplished first to propel the team and the organisation forward. When they understand how each task affects the team and organisational goals, it’s easier for them to choose the task that needs their attention first. Every aspect of daily activity needs to connect back to what matters most. This allows everybody to see how their everyday work helps their success and the success of the company. It will also do no harm to you and your teams longterm career prospects.

Continually reinforce the message
One-off communication is not enough; you just can’t tick it off your task list as complete.

The key is strategic, clear, and consistent communication throughout the organisation.

At every opportunity be it during meetings, performance reviews, or 1:1’s ensure you reinforce the purpose, vision and goals of the company and the important and valuable role they play. Connect company initiatives and decisions to these underlying messages.

As you build these goal conversations into your regular communications and messaging, you will reinforce, remind, and align employees across your team and organisation.

Recognise and reward your employees’ strengths
A recent Gallup study shows that encouraging strengths (rather than focussing on negatives) has a very positive effect on productivity. In fact, positive employee feedback was shown to increase productivity by at least 12.5%. Focus on their strengths, compliment rather than criticise, and find ways collaboratively to align them to the team and organisations’ goals.

So, rectangle or oval? It doesn’t matter so long as everybody knows which one they should be aligned to and by that, I mean the why (purpose), the what (goal and vision), and the how (individual role and responsibility). You’ll dramatically increase your chances of success.

Author – Julio Arquimbau


About InteraWorks

InteraWorks is a global learning company on a mission to elevate the human experience at work. Specializing in professional development and performance enablement, we offer top-rated learning programs based on four defined conditions that must exist for individuals, teams including Effective Edge, Best Year Yet, and the Essentials series. Our integrated learning framework and online tools generate immediate and sustainable breakthroughs in performance. Through decades of working at all levels in enterprise companies across many industries, we’ve built a reputation for helping people and organizations harness their focus, mindset, talent, and energy to produce results that matter most. 


We’ve defined four conditions that must exist for an individual, team, or organization to be effective within the arena of performance and development; Accountability, Focus, Alignment, and Integrity. We’ll continue to explore these and more in our blog and look forward to your engagement and interaction with us. Stay tuned as we engage the edges.