Much has been written in the HR and Change Management community on the subject of alignment- and rightly so. A vexing issue to say the least, alignment (or lack thereof) is one of the most common reasons (excuses?) for not meeting performance targets. So it’s only fitting that we at PMW spend some time exploring the issue of alignment from a Performance Management perspective.
Why is it that alignment is so elusive? Is alignment something we can manage, or is it something intangible like culture that just develops over the years? Is creating alignment a people process or an operational process? All good questions, but questions that cannot be answered without looking more deeply at what alignment looks like as it is being developed, to the time that it is ultimately achieved.
Let’s start with what alignment is. Alignment, in its purest form, is a shared COMMITMENT to producing an outcome and the strategy through which that outcome will be achieved. It is a DECLARATION of ownership by EACH INDIVIDUAL team member, and a PROMISE to do their part in achieving that outcome. Most importantly, alignment is a CHOICE that a member of a team brings himself to after understanding and EMBODYING the desired outcome and strategy. People can, and often do, disagree with parts of a solution, but can still remain aligned with the LARGER PURPOSE or CAUSE. Hence, they are usually able to say what is missing for them to come back into alignment. Stated simply, alignment is the HIGHEST level of commitment that can be observed in groups- much larger and more powerful than agreement, acceptance, “buy in”, or any other type of organizational consensus that may be achieved.
Sounds pretty straightforward, until you look at the PROCESS by which genuine alignment is created. In contrast with the process of consensus or compliance building, the process of creating alignment is markedly different. Take a team whose leader is personally sold on a solution and simply wants to gain compliance to his strategy. That process can be a complex negotiation, or a simple mandate- but whichever path is chosen, it will likely result in a “compromised solution”- either a “watered down” version of the outcome, or a “watered down” level of commitment. Achieving that kind of consensus can be purely a people process- taking a group and leading them to the water, and hopefully getting them to take a sip. But it is nothing like the process of achieving genuine alignment around a bold vision and strategy observed in most leading edge organizations.
A genuinely aligned team looks very different. The commitments are not only bold and unwavering, but art fully EMBODIED in the individuals who set out on the journey to achieve the vision. Think about your favorite sports team when everything seems to click. Players are in the right spots, appearing to almost read each other’s minds. They know each other’s tendencies and always seem to be one step ahead of the game. That’s real alignment. And that’s something you can’t teach, instruct or demand… as it is a commitment that is built within the individuals themselves. Genuine alignment is integrated into the fabric of a business- from the mission of the team to the goals of each individual, to the plan that is put in place to achieve it. From there, it becomes an integral part of each individual’s roles and accountabilities from start to finish.
What are the key ingredients necessary in building this kind of alignment? Here are a few “common denominators” you’ll see in a well aligned team as it is being formed:
Built on a BOLD VISION- Groups cannot be aligned if you’re business processes sit on a weak foundation. That is, a large organization cannot create real alignment around small tactical initiatives like “grow revenue by 5% per year” or cut expenses by 10%. A bold vision stretches the imagination into a world that looks radically different (and better) to the team that will take you there. Think about the visions of our early pioneers, forefathers, and activist leaders. Whether you believe in their cause or not, most would admit that their visions were inspiring. Columbus, Washington, Jefferson, JFK, MLK, Reagan- all laid out inspiring visions to their following- many of which inspired their following to put their life on the line to achieve it. People get aligned around a “CAUSE”, not a budget goal. Find out how to turn your vision, mission, and business objectives into a “bold cause”, and you’ll get a lot closer to your desired levels of alignment.
A Story about the Future based on GROUNDED ASSESSMENTS of the past and present- If you’ve got a bold vision, and it’s based on changing a current “reality”, you’d better be good at your assessments of the past and present. That means when you lay out your case for change and your new vision, it needs to be based on an accurate and defendable assessment of current state- based on FACT- not feelings or opinions. Feelings and emotions might convince someone to follow you, but it won’t get them to “own” the outcome for themselves. People are smarter than that. In order to step out on the end of the plank, each member of the team needs to be sure that the risk is worth taking. For that reason, bulletproofing your assessments is a must in the early stages of alignment building.
Ability to WITHSTAND CHALLENGES and necessary course corrections throughout the journey- Most of the time alignment doesn’t just happen in one step, in fact it rarely ever does. Alignment building is iterative and continuous- from the start of the journey to the end. One of the accepted realities of alignment is that people can often come in and out of it, as conditions change. What’s different about an aligned team is that team members, once initially aligned, are able to see and declare for themselves that they have fallen out of alignment on one or more aspects of the roadmap. So, from time to time, you may (and should expect to) get healthy challenges and questions about the path you’re on. Your answers and responses will be the keys to bringing those team members back into alignment. A plan that is airtight and defendable at the outset of the journey may develop problems as conditions change. A team that is genuinely aligned will be able to handle the types of challenges and course corrections that may be necessary during the journey, without risking the integrity of the outcome.
TRANSPARENCY of INFORMATION- Rarely does alignment work in a “closed book environment”. “Do it because I said so” and “trust us on this” are fine for declarations and compliance building, but won’t get you anywhere on building ownership for a commitment, and a personal promise to execute it. If the above two tenets of alignment are real, then the data environment needs to support it. Optimally, the data environment should be conducive to questioning and learning. If your assessments are grounded and defendable, then there is only positive that can come out of sharing that data with your team openly and honestly. Closed systems will surely stifle progress toward genuine alignment.
ACCOUNTABILITY “Through and Through”- Embodied. Integrated. Embedded— Getting commitment woven into the fabric of your business processes is not possible until the commitment is part of every team member’s personal goals and reward system. If the bold ambition declared at the top, is not seriously connected to an individual’s performance contract, there will exist a big alignment gap that will be virtually impossible to fill. Performance contracts and reward systems are what documents and connects the individual’s commitment to the broader ambition of the team. It is imperative that these ends of the spectrum get and stay connected.
So there you have it- a quick checklist to ensure you are on the path to an aligned and high performing team. While creating alignment is anything but “quick”, focusing on these items can make the process a lot faster and less painful than it needs to be. And the resulting alignment will a lot stronger too!
Author: Bob Champagne is Managing Partner of onVector Consulting Group, a privately held international management consulting organization specializing in the design and deployment of Performance Management tools, systems, and solutions. Bob has over 25 years of Performance Management experience and has consulted with hundreds of companies across numerous industries and geographies. Bob can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org