Lindsay’s In Business: PART 78. The field of Organizational Alignment

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What happens when you realise your path is entrepreneurship rather than employment? Lindsay takes up the challenge and shares an account of her journey as it unfolds…

I’m on a hard detox diet. It felt as if I was fasting for the first few days, and with that came an amazing kind of kick start to my brain. I could think faster and more creatively.  I could speak more articulately and more eloquently.

During those days I reflected on how Mirror Mirror fits within the field of organizational alignment – as I believe it indeed has become a field in its own right – and how that field has evolved.

In between my work on user acceptance testing of our fabulous new reporting tool, I wrote into an article about that.  It still needs work. I’d like to use the contents as the basis of a presentation I’ll be making at an Internal Communications conference in Berlin in October – but here’s the draft.

It’s quite long…. 

The field of Organizational Alignment

When large social, industrial, or organizational changes make a big impact on the context in which people work, a key question arises:

How can people align to perform well together at multiple levels: from the individual to the team, to the wider organization, and the outer world?

BACKGROUND

Since around the 1950s, increasing levels of complexity and change in the workplace have led to more disconnects between people at work.  Not only has the world become more complex, but there is more information, cultural diversity, and more ways of working – such as virtual teaming – in the workplace.

Naturally, people form unique interpretations of reality. In faster, more complex environments, the scope for differences between how people see things – and therefore what they do – became wider.

The ill-effects of misalignment are simply that decisions and actions don’t line up, impacting business performance and motivation.

The need for people to align, or ‘having people point in the same direction’ as it was commonly phrased, now required proactive attention.

GOALS, TARGETS AND REPORTING LINES

The term ‘alignment’ was typically used in an organizational setting to describe the task of matching individual roles and goals to the objectives of the team and the organization.  The thinking being that once the logic was created, set down to paper and communicated, alignment would be complete.

While this work, if done successfully, helps to align people, it does not plug the gap.

Goals and roles are conceptual. What do the words used to describe these concepts really mean in practice?  Do they help people come to a common understanding about what their context and challenges are?  How does this understanding adapt when the context changes? And critically – are people aligned around how they will deliver?

The facts are that people at any level of seniority interact and communicate based on their unique vantage points and interpretations of reality: in different ways, using different terms and reference points, at different times, and in different places.   Alignment of people for the purposes of implementation is a somewhat different challenge.

STRATEGY COMMUNICATIONS

The task of aligning people to the company strategy started out as a kind of ‘internal PR’ in the 1970’s. Messages were crafted and distributed to employees ‘top-down’. By the 1990’s internal communication had become more sophisticated, morphing into the ’employee engagement’ discipline that is still developing today.  Work in this area seeks to be as effective and as efficient as possible, taking advantage of media technologies such as the intranet, webcasts, and video to transmit information, news and stories. Such mass media communications, aimed at wide groups of employees, or all employees, inevitably include one-way generic content. Again, while useful, it lacks relevance at the team and individual level.

PROCESSES, POLICIES AND TOOLS

At the same time, the design of processes, policies and procedures came into focus. Reporting structures, onboarding processes, feedback mechanisms, compensation policies – indeed anything that influences the way people behave can be aligned to match an organization’s brand and vision, bringing congruence and improved results.

In parallel with the craze for Total Quality Management, followed Six Sigma and Lean, huge strides were made.  However, the larger and more bureaucratic the organization, the more difficult it was to make such systems adaptive in the face of dynamic change, rendering them less relevant and less useful to the point of hinderance.

PERSONALITY AND BEHAVIOURS

The 1990’s saw a huge wave of personality analysis tools with a focus on using behaviour to improve performance. Myers Briggs, Belbin, Hogan for example, provided a means for people to understand more about themselves and others to improve sense-making and collaboration. They came at the perfect time – just when people were trying to navigate the challenges of diversity, some of these tools blossomed in popularity and helped with the integration of diverse workforces.

But we’re still missing something to complete the alignment picture.

MIDDLE MANAGEMENT

Ever since senior leaders found it problematic to connect with the reality on the ground in person, they relied on their Line Managers to bridge the gap.

Success here has been notoriously difficult to achieve. Being ‘in the middle’ means trying to facilitate a shared reality among others while wrestling with your own interpretation of the context, amidst pressure to deliver results.

THE RELEVANCE GAP

By 2005, the implications of poor organizational alignment seemed only to be getting worse, as researchers Box and Platts brought to light.

Problems caused by misalignment include confusion; waste of time, money and opportunity; diminished productivity; demotivation of individuals and teams; internal conflicts, power struggles; and ultimately project failure as well as resulting in time and energy spent: doubting, conspiring, guessing or gossiping when that same energy could be deployed in moving an organisation forward.

(Box, S., & Platts, K. 2005 – Business process management: establishing and maintaining project alignment”, Business Process Management Journal, Vol.11 Issue: 4).

Either the known alignment approaches in systems management and communications so far weren’t being put into practice, or they weren’t working as well as were needed.   The challenge was still to create alignment in a way that is relevant for all.

The relevance gap

AGILITY

While agile practices began some years back in the IT Department to improve flexibility for better product development, the work has evolved and spread into other functions and across whole organizations to support change. This has matured to encompass agile capability design, agile management systems design, agile digital workplace design, and the implementation of agile design at scale.

The challenge here is in striking a balance between alignment for efficiency and alignment for innovation. Companies committed to agility show real results.

SHARED REALITY AT THE TEAM LEVEL

And so, the final part of the puzzle, for now at least, acts on insights from neuroscience that fundamentally, recognises that people interpret things differently.

The research shows that people need to relate inputs to their context if they are to be meaningful.  They need to make sense of things in their own ways to fully understand and take ownership. They need to feel safe and included to participate. They need to be understood and valued to contribute effectively.

None of this sounds new but was only recently validated to be true and is only now being applied.

Team alignment work brings a shared understanding between team members about their context and challenges (cognitive alignment); and high-quality collaboration that supports a continued shared understanding during change, and the ability to deliver effectively together (behaviours).

Because people may do what they do and be perfectly aligned in the frame of knowing what they know at the time, such work involves the discovery of what is currently unseen between people to broaden that frame.

CURRENT STATE

Today, Organizational Alignment can be seen as a field in its own right.  It addresses four areas and is enabled by a number of activities.  They are yet to be tested on a wide scale as a whole system.The field of organizational alignment.png

Mirror MirrorSystematic Team Alignment.

Your story, our platform: If you’ve got a story and would like to share it with other Femflectors, please let us know. Femflection is all about transferring learnings to help others, be they big or subtle. We want to connect with your feelings, your learnings, your reflections or your hopes for the future – in blog or interview format. Express yourself here. Get in touch with us via anja.uitdehaag@femflection.com

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