Organizational alignment is a catalyst for speed and the cornerstone for growth.
Most business leaders know what organizational alignment looks like: every person at every level of the enterprise—the call center tech, the mid-career analyst, the SVP of sales—understanding and acting upon a shared vision and strategic direction in a manner consistent with company values. Key systems—operations, technology, finance, HR—working collaboratively toward common objectives. Nimble, well-managed teams of professionals solving problems and delighting customers. In a sense, your organization is like an automobile. In order for you (the driver) to achieve maximum performance, all of the car’s parts need to be in alignment—not just your four tires, which must be balanced and properly inflated and respond to your directions through the steering wheel, but also your engine and brakes, which must communicate with the tires when you hit the gas or tap the brake pedal. When all these systems are working efficiently and in concert, you can gain speed, maintain control and get to where you’re going.
When a car falls out of alignment, the source of the problem is typically evident, and the consequences are obvious: even the best driver is likely to end up in a ditch or a repair shop when key parts aren’t working together well. Misalignment of an enterprise can have a similar impact, with the business hitting a wall or steadily deteriorating.
This cause-and-effect, however, may not be as apparent to a business leader as it is to the driver. The modern corporation is a highly complex system and its leaders are often distanced from feedback (they don’t “feel the road” as well); information, some of it contradictory, arrives via multiple sources having gone through various filters. Given the speed of business today and the pressures on executives to hit their quarterly numbers, the leader may not take the time to dig down to root causes—and as a result, may overlook the broader organizational forces at work.
The business leader also may not want to see the misalignment in the organization; they may not be ready to look in the mirror and accept that they are, in a significant way, the source of the problem. The leader may not be able to recognize that they are saying one thing and doing another—giving the field marching orders that contradict programs they asked corporate to implement.
Regardless of the reason, putting off efforts to address alignment in any organization is a mistake, because alignment is a catalyst for speed and the cornerstone for growth. Good alignment accelerates decision-making at the executive level and the front lines; it enhances employee engagement, customer satisfaction and sales; and ultimately, it drives performance and profitability.
And getting aligned is only half the battle; staying aligned is what separates great organizations from the rest. Leaders must recognize that alignment isn’t a destination or a finish line—it’s a continuous challenge, an unending journey.
That’s because internal and external conditions inevitably change. Spark plugs rust, brake pads wear down, windshields get chipped—and the driver must repair or replace these parts to regain peak performance. Outside, weather conditions deteriorate or improve, other drivers cut you off, a pedestrian ambles into traffic; in any of these situations, you must make adjustments to stay on the road heading in the right direction. The same holds true for organizations: market realities shift, internal capabilities fluctuate, key personnel move up or move on—and leaders must respond to maintain alignment.
Because organizations involve so many moving pieces, gaining and sustaining alignment is difficult, slow and inevitably messy work. Given this, it is not surprising that many leaders struggle with it. They express tremendous frustration at their inability to pull their organization together and move forward in an aligned manner. They point to countless speeches and town hall meetings and wonder why their efforts are not yielding the expected results. They’re confident they have the right directions, but the car simply can’t get them there.
Fortunately, like any major change effort, alignment can be jump-started (and accelerated) with the right organizational environment and a clear, consistent process.
Getting an organization of any size aligned typically starts at the top, with the leader and the Senior Team. Whether responsible for a single function or an entire enterprise, the Senior Team casts a long shadow: only if this group is aligned can the entire organization be aligned.
The process starts with the leadership developing a common understanding of the organization’s external environment and internal realities. The Senior Team must have a candid conversation about what Jim Collins calls “The Brutal Facts”—and how best to respond to them. For this part of the process to be effective, the leader must encourage open dialogue and ensure the team becomes comfortable getting into and out of conflict.
At the back end of the conflict, the Senior Team must come to an agreement. Good process often leads the team to reach consensus. When that cannot be achieved, however, the top leader must decide; team members need to agree to disagree—and still manage to speak with one voice to the organization in support of the decision. Just as importantly, all Senior Team members must be crystal clear on what will happen as a result of the decision, by when and by whom.
While creating explicitness about the way forward, the Senior Team also needs to find a way to engender collective ownership of the strategy and its implications. The broader the sense of ownership across the organization, the swifter the execution and the more concerted the effort. Coordinated, collective action can only happen if all key stakeholders are committed to the goal and plan.