'The Alignment Factor': The 3 Dimensions of Alignment
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This is the eighth in an exclusive, nine-part series of articles from Total Alignment authors Riaz Khadem and Linda Khadem titled "The Alignment Factor." Check back next Thursday for the final installment.
An aligned organization focuses the talents of people towards achieving a common goal. The aim is to ensure a clear understanding among all employees of its mission, vision and values. This, in turn, motivates actions that will advance the interests of the organization as well as open up important channels of collaboration. This is all dependent on individuals' behavior, and in companies with traditional management cultures, a transformation is required in three areas: culture, infrastructure and practice.
For our purposes, we define culture as the "way people do things," or their habitual behaviors. Culture therefore is the collection of the habitual behavior of a group of people. Behavior can be triggered by thought, or it could occur as an automatic response to situations. A traditional organizational culture more often produces habitual behaviors that are automatic.
The pursuit of alignment requires a change in the patterns of thought and action in many organizations. This change translates into new habitual behaviors. But what are the behaviors that should be changed? They can be identified from your mission, vision and values. These are unique to each company.
If collaboration is a value for the new culture, what should the behaviors look like? This might manifest as collaboration across silos. For example, if production is not usually collaborating with sales (say, in a manufacturing company) or buyers are not collaborating with sellers (e.g. in retail), then a change of behaviors is required.
What are other behaviors required in an aligned organization? Perhaps they include listening, empowering, accompanying and respecting the opinions of others regardless of their status in the hierarchy. Once the new behaviors become habitual, they change the organizational culture.
The term "infrastructure" often denotes public-works projects buildings and roads, necessary for the operation of a society. Here, however, we use the term to indicate processes that facilitate alignment in an organization. The existing structures in many organizations that favor misalignment must change. For example, think of the performance-appraisal process, so common in many companies. Each person becomes somewhat aligned once or twice a year with their boss. However, that alignment doesn’t ensure alignment with the vision and strategy of the organization. What if the boss himself is not aligned? Further, two people doing exactly the same job and reporting to two different bosses will end up being aligned differently. And as you go up the organizational silos, the director at the head of the silo might not be aligned horizontally with another director. Thus, the purpose and mission of the organization would suffer from the lack of adequate collaboration and alignment.
Among the components of a new infrastructure we are proposing is a process that clarifies measurable accountability for results, measurable accountability for collaboration and the free flow of information to people through a push notification.
These are not the only structures needed, but they are indispensable, because without clarifying accountability for results, everyone is accountable — which means no one is. Without assigning accountability for collaboration, the old cultural pattern will take over that prompts people to strive to excel in their own functions rather than collaborating in favor of higher results for the company. And without the free flow of information to all the people who need it, decisions will be based on opinions and personal preferences, not on facts. We mention that the information flow should possess the push-notification characteristic to ensure that people obtain the necessary information sent to them without having to dig into databases to find it.
Having clarity on these first two dimensions is necessary, but not sufficient. Practice is the key to putting desired behaviors into action and using the infrastructure mentioned above to sustain alignment. The systematic approach we are proposing for this third dimension consists of twin management processes: team review and vertical review.
Team review is a meeting where a boss's results are reviewed in a natural or project team. Traditionally, each direct report presents the results of the last period in his or her area, one after the other. This usually takes hours and ends up with minutes of conversation. It is oriented to what happened in the past and why.
Team review is a complete opposite of this in that the team, including the executive and direct reports, review the results assigned to their boss, spending some time to understand what happened in the previous period, but significantly more time to consult together how to improve the results. The meeting is upward-focused, which is a change of paradigm. It is a rhythm of activity that is focused on the future, in that more time is spent on figuring out how to improve results rather than just looking back at the past. It is a forum that encourages collaboration and creativity. The participants are focused on helping their boss succeed by being open, non-defensive and involved.
Embedded in this process is a simple but profound learning model rooted in consultation, action and reflection. The rhythm consists of coming together to consult and arrive at plans of action, then leaving to implement the plan and coming back together after a week (or a month) to review what happened and learn. It is a cycle that continues week after week, month after month. As members of the team often represent different functional areas, this learning process serves to unify and align them horizontally.
A close companion to the first process is the vertical review, i.e. a one-on-one conversation between each person and their boss. This also represents a change in paradigm, in that the purpose of the conversation is development of capacity for the collaborator rather than evaluation by the boss. It is also future-focused in the sense that most of the conversation is aimed at reviewing the collaborator's plans of action to improve results rather than just reviewing what happened in the past and why. As preparation for this conversation, the collaborator will have already analyzed his or her past performance and developed an action plan to present to the boss. The conversation changes a culture of excuses into one of looking for solutions.
The learning model mentioned above is also active in vertical review. The boss and collaborator come together to consult and validate or improve the action plan already developed by the collaborator. Then the collaborator proceeds to implement, returns after a week (or a month) to report what happened and they reflect together on the learning that had had taken place. This process enables the boss and collaborator to align vertically.
The implementation of this learning model through team review and vertical review at all the levels of the organization adds a significant impetus to the culture of alignment, as well as to bottom-line results.
Culture, infrastructure and practice are mutually reinforcing and coherent. They focus the talents of people on achieving the common goals of the organization. The three dimensions have been applied to all types of organizations with significant success in performance and growth, creating healthy organizational climates that attract and maintain talent.