One of the most common reasons for business failure is lack of team alignment. Leaders can set out brilliant strategic objectives, but without clear direction on how these translate into aligned individuals’ objectives and activities, success can remain elusive.
Strategic alignment continues to be a hot topic in many executive offices. Its definition is hardly a point of contention: Getting all the organization to focus on the right results and activities that drive strategy.
Alignment is the synergy that’s achieved when strategy, goals, and activities work as an integrated system, reinforcing one another top-down and across the organization. That is why alignment sits at the core of organizational effectiveness: Getting the right things done.
Teams in different functions tend to have their own worldview, different processes on what to prioritize and how to allocate resources. Getting each team to work together around a unified purpose and a shared vision can be challenging.
As one leader found: “I thought my team was perfectly aligned until I asked five of them what our top priorities are. I got five different answers.”
The Cost of Misalignment
According to Forbes, 65% of organizations have an agreed-upon strategy, but only 14% of their employees understand it. Even worse, less than 10% of all organizations see it implemented.
Another Gallup research found that employees whose managers involve them in goal alignment are four times more likely to be engaged than other employees. Yet, this basic expectation only occurs for 30% of employees. The result is poor management, loss of productivity and a disengaged workforce that have resulted in losses of between $960 billion and $1.2 trillion per year.
As Patrick Lencioni, author of "The Five Dysfunctions of a Team" described it, "If you could get all the people in an organization rowing in the same direction, you could dominate any industry, in any market, against any competition, at any time.”
Start with Vision and Strategy, Get Buy-in
At a high level, alignment starts with defining what matters most to the organization: where it wants to be, how it wants to be perceived, what it wants to achieve and how to get there. It’s a combination of vision and strategy.
That’s all good. But without boots and tools on the ground, visions are no more than dreams. That’s why securing buy-in among everyone in the organization becomes essential. It’s a shared commitment that resources (people, time and capital) should be dedicated to reinforce that very same vision. It’s a rally to win the hearts and minds of everyone. It’s also a commitment to hold them accountable for bringing that vision life, and it’s easy to do.
When he took over as the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Vern Clark once said: “I made alignment my #1 goal for the Navy because, in my business, second place is a terminal disease.”
Great leaders are good at securing buy-in. When management teams are in constant disagreement about priorities, it’s easy to see that as an indication of a misaligned organization. If the team isn’t in disagreement, does that mean they are in perfect harmony? Or, are they simply avoiding conflict?
An effective leader is like an admiral. They keep their eyes on their fleet, and watch for evidence of in-cohesion. They seek out every opportunity to build buy-in to the strategy.
Each member of the team is tasked with defining the results required of their job in measurable terms. These are often called SMART objectives, OKRs, KPIs or metrics. Done well, these objectives guide the team members' activities in the direction of the strategy.
Each team member is tasked with asking for the decision authorities they need to deliver their results effectively. Knowing what decisions they "own", and who to go to for support, empowers each individual to move swiftly and efficiently in the direction of strategy.
Each team member needs to understand the activities they are expected to perform. These activities include processes and projects they are to participate in.
For leaders, getting commitment becomes easier. They can trust their teams to move in the right direction, delivering faster results. They also feel empowered, spending less time on debating decisions and priorities and more on getting the right things done.
Understand Goals Across the Team
Traditional goal-setting in organizations is sub-optimal. Individuals review objectives that are pushed to them from their manager, usually through an HRIS system. The employee then creates a vague objective, types it into a system, which their manager then approves. Then nobody looks at it again for 6-12 months.
In an aligned organization, goals and objectives are visible to everyone across the team, right from the start.
Teams seek out alignment by seeking out interdependencies and resolving conflicting objectives. They look for overlaps and gaps in roles, and aim to iron them out.
The leader leverages the entire team to design the work in such a way that all the pieces fit tightly together. In the process, the leader generates more buy-in, and greater alignment towards the strategy.
Keep Everyone Focused on Priorities
It's easy to get distracted. Effective leaders keep their teams focused on the priorities. A simple way to do this is a Weekly Top 5 meeting.
In a Weekly Top 5 meeting, the leader gathers his/her team together at the start of the week for 15-30 minutes. Each team member comes prepared with their top 5 deliverables for the week - items they commit to completing that week. The leader displays everyone's list in front of the team, and the team works to ensure alignment, asking:
Hold Regular Check-ins
We've all heard of the mid-year and year-end review. Research by Marcus Buckingham in collaboration with organizations like Deloitte, GE and Accenture, have revealed that the traditional performance management models of the past are horribly obsolete.
Instead, effective leaders conduct regular in-person check-ins with their team, and with each individual on the team, to review progress on results and remove blockages. Check-ins can be weekly, monthly, or quarterly depending on the type of data available for review.
Technology as a Catalyst for Continuity
Alignment optimization often fails not for a lack of will or vision. It’s often due to a lack of knowledge on how to secure lasting adoption over time. Without a framework and a system that instills a culture of alignment, continuity stalls.
Having a team management system in place to optimize alignment makes it easy for everyone to adopt an alignment mindset. Technology makes it part of everyone’s workday routine - a disciplined habit that makes alignment part of the organization’s DNA.
When living in a culture of alignment, organizations get better and faster results. Everyone feels empowered and engaged, maximizing the organization’s return on the human capital investment.