Systems Of Alignment

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As we reflect on the process of getting things done in business, one of the most important principles is the concept of alignment. Perhaps, simplified to, “How do we get everyone in the same boat, rowing the same direction, in cadence, at top speed?”

As one looks at consistently high performing organizations, we see fanatic alignment—usually starting with a highly aligned culture, values, and leadership that models the expected behaviors. And, as you look in every corner of the organization, you find universal alignment and ownership–people have internalized these things and own them for themselves.

By contrast, the majority of organizations seem to wander. They may have moments of greatness, perhaps around a hot product, or a vibrant market (all boats rise in a rising tide), but struggle to sustain it. As we peel things back internally, there are few aligning principles-who are we, what do we stand for, how do we want to be perceived by our customers, people, partners, community, and markets?

Typically, there is constant shifting of priorities, high turnover–particularly in leadership ranks in these organizations. There are endless internal meetings trying to figure this out, all driven by lack of alignment.

Often, we see organizations with a “faux alignment.” That is the result of management declaring “this is who we are, this is what we do, these are our priorities, do these things or we will find someone who will.” This faux alignment is particularly dysfunctional because it not owned and internalized by most of the people. They go through the motions without understanding what it means to them, or why it is important.

What’s most interesting about alignment is not the fact that we are aligned–though that is critical, but it’s the ongoing process of gaining and maintaining alignment.

It’s that process that drives organizations to learn grow and develop. It’s the process of listening to, debating, and sharing differing point of view–and coming to agreement that makes alignment so impactful and important.

We do not gain alignment by declaring we are aligned, but by going through the tough work of achieving alignment, by getting buy in and ownership from each person because they have been part of the process.

Alignment is dynamic, we have to constantly work on being aligned. This happens as there are changes in the markets, our customers, and what’s important. It is dynamic because we have to constantly learn and improve, individually and organizationally.

Alignment is the process we go through to successfully change and improve–absent alignment , we have meaningless activity.

The process of aligning enables us to address highly complex issues and disruption–as an organization. It gives us the tools to make sense of what we are experiencing and to have greater confidence in the decisions we make.

At the same time, being aligned, particularly around basic principles frees us up to trust our people to figure things out when they don’t know the answers. We know they will act in ways consistent with our basic principles.

The process of aligning is what gives meaning to our work and our roles within the organization.

Ironically, while alignment and the process of aligning is at the core of success, we don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it or the systems of alignment critical to success.

To be honest, I’m not quite sure what “systems of alignment” encompass. I do think that we have to think in terms of systems–because of the complexity and diversity of issues, people, time, change, risk that are involved. There are complex interactions that cannot be modeled simply, “do this, this way.” But we have to think of the complex interaction, breaking them down into manageable subsystems. Questions like:

  • How do we align within our work groups?
  • How do we align within our functions and across functions?
  • How do we align within our organization?
  • How do we align with our partners, suppliers and community?
  • How do we align with our customers and what they are trying to achieve?
  • How do we help our customers and partners better align around what they are trying to achieve–because if we don’t do this, we it becomes impossible for us to align with them to achieve our shared goals?
  • How do we maintain alignment through disruption and rapid change?
  • What role does alignment play in giving us greater confidence in the decisions we make and the strategies we choose to execute.
  • What are the underlying mechanisms that impact our ability to align, for example trust, openness to different ideas, ability to listen to learn, as opposed to listening to win, commitment to continuous learning, commitment to continuous improvement, commitment to actively engage our people/talent in the alignment process?
  • How does this alignment empower our people to figure things out themselves and take the action we would expect them to take?

There’s much more, I’ll explore these in more detail in subsequent posts.

I’d like to leave you with two take aways, or things to think about:

  1. We talk a lot about how customers struggle through their buying journey. This struggle is really deeper and not about buying, but about aligning around change initiatives, and maintaining that alignment over time. We, sales, have a tremendous opportunity to help the customer make sense of what they are trying to do and to align themselves around the change they are trying to achieve.
  2. In our own organizations, if we are to maximize our performance over time, we must do the hard work of gaining and maintaining alignment in our organizations.

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