How to Build Organizational Alignment

Kate Lee By Kate Lee

Whether you start with a bang or a whisper, the most important thing is that you commit to an alignment process.

We believe that leaders have two organizational levers to pull when running the business— people and process. These two levers are also critical to gaining and sustaining alignment. Without a strong process, the hard work of engaging people will be for naught. And that process typically drives a Senior Team to reach agreement on three key topics: Why alignment is necessary, what the organization will align around, and how this alignment will be achieved.

Building Common Understanding

There are no shortcuts to aligning an organization. Establishing a common understanding of the things an organization can’t control and key aspects of the organization (people, products, processes, technology, etc.) is an important first step. By aligning around the current state and—just as importantly—the likely future state, the team can identify gaps and probable needs.

During this initial phase, many clients develop a thorough inventory of critical internal and external factors that they can address one by one later in the process. A few take a different tack, boiling down the data into a handful of critical statements. One client, a multi-brand service provider, took a hard look at its less-than-stellar revenue, market share and customer satisfaction measures and summed up reality in one sentence: “Leadership has failed to put the customer first.” This frank appraisal helped the Senior Team describe its “burning platform”—and communicate with urgency to the rest of the organization why alignment was so important.

Reaching Agreement

Once developed, a shared understanding of reality also helps a team make better decisions by bringing all viable options into sharper focus—and by making the best path forward clear.

Let’s be clear: most decisions do not require consensus. In fact, the pursuit of consensus often paralyzes teams and organizations, causing important opportunities to be missed. Decisions typically get made by a sub-set of the group—sometimes just one person. As one of our clients is fond of saying, “This is not a democracy.”

What matters most is that the leader clarifies at the outset how key decisions will be made, and by whom. Alignment does not necessarily mean everyone is happy with every decision. It does mean; however, that all key stakeholders have some input into the decisions, understand the decision-making process and support the decisions, publicly and privately.

Creating Ownership and Taking Collective Action

Decisions, no matter how smart, are useless unless they are implemented. Only action—aligned, coordinated action— can deliver breakthrough results. And these days only an organization that feels a sense of collective ownership of its strategies can implement them successfully. Command and control has been replaced by engage and empower.

The effort to create ownership should start early in the alignment process because it multiplies the benefits. For instance, after assessing market realities and sketching out a strategic roadmap, many clients share these “first drafts” with their direct reports and solicit their feedback. This approach has three benefits. First, the act of “teaching” increases each leader’s understanding of the strategy. Second, the feedback generated by the exercise yields dozens of good ideas for making the strategy better. Finally, and most importantly, by engaging their direct reports in this open dialogue, the leaders build ownership in the change effort and alignment around the key strategies.

Whether you start with a bang or a whisper, the most important thing is that you commit to an alignment process that ensures open dialogue, ownership and a sense of urgency.

Recommendations

  1. Engage your team in a discussion of market realities. Which characteristics of your customers, competitors and suppliers are affecting your organization? Which macroeconomic forces are in play? How are these realities likely to be different three years from now? Have your team agree on a short list of key changes that you believe will have the greatest impact on the overall context of your business. Write these down. Use the document as a tool to engage others in your organization in the same dialogue. Explain how your team sees the world-changing and ask the listeners for their perspective and input. These discussions will lay the groundwork to help the organization understand your strategy and operating priorities.
  2. How do you currently create ownership in your organization for strategic initiatives? How effective have the initiatives been? Which new mechanisms or processes might increase the feeling of ownership?

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