Why Organizational Alignment Matters
Once aligned, organizations thrive.
Alignment means each part of a system depends on other parts and respects their output. "One hand knows what the other hand is doing." Agreement, alliance, and cooperation are the norm in aligned organizations, rather than the exception.
Misalignment is the primary cause of organizational dysfunctionalities. Misalignment is elusive and challenging to spot because it is gradual, subtle, and can appear normal.
However, you can spot its symptoms relatively quickly.
Here are the three most prominent symptoms of misaligned organizations:
1. Laborious Roll-outs
Roll-outs of senior management decisions run into a barrier after barrier. Digitalization is, for example, notoriously hard to implement. IT systems do not care for organizational politics or any other issues. IT systems unapologetically point to what is not yet aligned.
2. Ineffective Meetings
There is a system-wide and open aversion toward meetings. There have been many failed attempts to make meetings more productive. People go from meeting to meeting and worry about wasting time and their ever-growing to-do lists.
3. Low Spirits
There is an overall sense of dissatisfaction, frustration, and overload.
In my eyes, meetings are the place where we come together and ideally collaborate and share brainpower to solve complex problems. No one person can do it alone. So, there is no way we can eliminate meetings. We need them. Here we experience misalignment in action first hand.
Without alignment, organizations can have the most impressive brainpower on board, a solid knowledge base, and many years of experience in the field and still be treading water in survival mode.
Organizations do try to align, very often as a matter of fact. The most common solution seems to be serial organizational re-structuring and the shifting of leadership positions.
So, why is organizational alignment seemingly so tricky?
I believe this is a side effect of specialization.
We tend to prefer details over the big picture. We tend to value details more than the big picture. We tend to listen more to specialists than to generalists.
Misalignment, however, is the manifestation of a myriad of related problems spread across the organization. It is primarily a big-picture issue in which the details also don't match.
We need both generalists and specialists to collaborate, listen to each other's perspectives, build upon each other's knowledge, and sort out the misalignment together. Together, we move from the generalist's big picture to the specialist's details and back. It is not enough to resolve problems on the detail level. Better time management does not make ineffective meetings effective.
For this to happen, we need leaders with top-notch facilitation skills, wisdom, and a deep understanding of human nature to move the organization step by step toward alignment.
Correcting misalignment is a journey; depending on the organization's size, it can take anywhere between 6 months to 2-3 years. It is not for faint-hearted leaders or those who are on their career fast track and continually move around.
My experience is that all organizations are principally capable of correcting their special misalignment if they truly put their minds and hearts to it. Brainpower, talent, and capabilities are rarely the issue.
In my practice, I find that problems and solutions tend to lie right next to each other if you recognize and connect the dots. Listen to all the conversations around you carefully. They will be full of clues.
So, how can we align organizations practically and pragmatically?
The first requirement is a reliable and determined leader at the helm with a sense of mission, a strong vision, and excellent listening skills.
The second requirement is aligning those in charge; in other words, defining what is most valuable to the organization? Then the follow-up question is: How can this organization do good while doing well?
Note: Money is not a value; it is a by-product of aligning the organization and its offering to the needs of its customers. If money is a high priority on the value scale, the organization loses depth and can get stuck in a continuous survival loop, monthly on repeat.
A third requirement is a two-pronged approach towards alignment:
1) Combing through and aligning the hard facts, e.g., organizational structure, roles and mandates required, available and missing capabilities and resources, decision-making procedures, and performance management systems.
2) Appreciating and aligning soft factors, e.g., acceptable and non-acceptable behavior, personal development and skills improvement strategies, and cultural values.
I often revert to Maslow's hierarchy of needs to double-check if we have covered all bases in the alignment process:
1) Physiological needs: Is the organizational environment uplifting and conducive for "reaching a positive state of agreement, alliance, and cooperation"?
2) Safety needs: Do people feel safe and can relax into their work?
3) Belongingness needs: Do people have a sense of belonging with their team, their unit, and their organization?
4) Esteem needs: Do the members of the organization feel seen, heard, appreciated, and respected?
5) Self-actualization needs: Do people know the path they can take to develop themselves in line with their organization's needs?
As I mentioned before, correcting misalignment and creating an aligned organization is a journey. It takes time, patience, perseverance, and a well-paced systematic effort. Therefore, continuity is vital.
In a nutshell: Organizational alignment is possible and truly worthwhile and rewarding. Achieving alignment is the senior leader's primary task—no doubt about it.
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