"Everyone rowing in the same direction". "Singing from the same hymnal" "All on the same page". There is no shortage of clichés about the importance of keeping your team focused on a common goal. Why? Well, because that's the single most important factor in keeping your team productive. No big surprise there.
The surprising thing about this is not its importance. If you stop to think about it, the goal explains everything about a team: What's the work it's supposed to be doing? Why was the team assembled? How can you tell good work (it meets the metrics, moves the project forward and accomplishes its mission) from less good work (it doesn't do the things we just mentioned)?
What's surprising is how often teams lose sight of those goals. There are plenty of reasons, and maybe understanding some of the most common will help you and your team reassess where you are headed.
You get so focused on the tasks, the "why" slips away. Even good, focused teams (maybe especially focused teams) get so caught up in the assigned tasks, that those tasks become their main focus.
This can result in not paying attention to how the task fits in to the big scheme of things. A really common example is to be so concerned about perfect execution that you ignore the needs of other stakeholders in the process. Does it have to be perfect? Are you holding other people up? Is this task even necessary any more?
Your "real job" gets in the way. A common problem for many teams is that they are made up of people from different departments, disciplines or groups. There's the project or team you're part of, and then there's your "real job" with your "real boss" (the one who writes your performance review and can give or withhold your raise). When priorities conflict, trouble arises.
People are focused on their needs or their group. This is not as selfish as it sounds. It would make sense that an accountant would look at things from "an accounting standpoint". An engineer will look at things more logically, and a sales person will be more focused on how easy it will be to sell something.
That's great, except when those higher callings conflict. The team needs to be in agreement on the "why" of the project or work as much as on the "what" to avoid conflict that can derail the team.
So how can you help your team stay focused? There is one very simple way. Say it all the time. I know teams that open every meeting by revisiting the purpose of the project and what it's supposed to do. This not only keeps people accountable, but empowers the group to challenge work, tasks and assignments. Does what I'm doing get us closer to that goal? If we spend the resources there, how will that impact our ability to do what we're supposed to be doing?
Asking - and answering - those questions is the best way to ensure people know what page they're supposed to be on, and can help each other stay there.