Note: Read Running a Business Part 1 here.
The biggest failing I have seen in businesses throughout my career is lack of alignment within an organization.
Let me explain what I mean by alignment.
Alignment is that everybody understands functionally what the organization absolutely must deliver day in and day out.
And it is nice if they understand the “why” (the vision), but the functional aspect is the core to alignment. Understanding of this can help all levels prioritize what is right and what is wrong. It also insures externally people never get confused.
I sometimes refer to alignment as “purposeful fragmentation.” Alignment permits the parts of the organization (departments, divisions, etc.) to maintain some autonomy yet always be grounded in what is ultimately important to the organization.
Typical problems for alignment:
The more the leader is unfocused (and unfocused can simply mean lack of consistency) the larger the swing with on-the-ground employees. A swinging organization is one that is wasting energy in trying to meet shifting objectives. Even worse in a pendulum situation the leader, because the transgressions are so minor in his or her eyes, often doesn’t recognize the repercussions of his or her actions (and blames the organization).
A crack in agreement in upper leadership becomes crevasses by the time it reaches individual departments. Maybe the executive leadership team is split on vision and what is important. It may be a minor disagreement. It may be only one or two of the 12 person executive team.
In the end it creates inefficient crevasses in the organization where individual groups “do their own thing.”
It may be the leader is talking with marbles in his/her mouth and no one understands but I don’t call it the marbles because of that.
The leader is unclear. Maybe they are so aspirational no one is clear what they are supposed to do. Maybe they are clear but no one understands. Maybe they are perfectly clear but unfocused. Regardless. The organization becomes like marbles dumped on a table. Everyone rolling every which way in whatever direction their particular lay of the land dictates the way to go.
Anyway, eventually they all do roll off the table and the leader has lost his marbles (Sorry. Couldn’t resist).
The leader suggests the situation dictates an exception. Regardless of the reason for the exception the organization doesn’t remember the reason…they only remember the exception. And one reasonable exception begets another reasonable exception in their minds.
What can an organization do to get aligned?
Bookending for alignment.
I like a bookend strategy to gain alignment. What this means is great leaders are clear on vision (words and consistent actions) and have on-the-ground employee understanding. Get those two things straight and inevitably all the books between the bookends will all make sense.
In a bookend strategy the Middle Management’s job is easier because instead of directing up/down they are managing what they are receiving from the top and underneath. In terms of percentages, this means that the leader can be 75% vision and 25% functional/tactical and the on-the-ground organization can be 25% vision and 75% (or even more) functional/tactical. It represents a good mix but aligned on commonalities.
The key to alignment is isolating the organization’s Core Competency.
There are many business consultants who do not agree with me on this issue. I believe core competency is the single most important aspect in an organizational alignment. Yes. Even more so than vision <although purpose could be very very close behind>.
To me … I believe you begin by stripping away all the emotional aspects and outline in a succinct way what the company/brand delivers from a functional aspect the best, i.e., what is it they are best at.
This core competency should be stated as a specific superiority claim of distinction or a distinct focused statement at what the company functionally does best.
Many people talk about “isolating the vision or the purpose.” Frankly, if the core competency doesn’t support whatever vision is stated, it is all going to fall apart so you may as well start with what the organization delivers day to day functionally.
The core competency needs to be supported with “reasons to believe”:
The reason to believe for the core competency should be focused.
Does it have a special ingredient?
Is there a pre-emptive endorsement (more NASCAR chief mechanics recommend, more doctors recommend, etc)?
Has research shown proof (Volvo crash demonstration)?
The preference is to have one focused reason to believe, but often a company needs to “bundle” distinct areas of expertise (tastes great, less filling or brighter teeth, fresher breath) to deliver proof of performance.
Whatever is decided as the reason to believe it becomes the unassailable mantra throughout the organization from management, innovation, product development, sales, marketing, finance strategy and service.
Ultimately alignment has several dimensions – physical, emotional and intellectual understanding throughout all levels of the organization (leader to the most junior on-the-ground employee). It ends up being a fine line between alignment and purposeful fragmentation, but one worth walking.