How To Achieve And Sustain Alignment, Even During A Pandemic

April 1, 2020

By Adam Chapman, EyeForPharma on Mar 21, 2019

Complexity is the defining business and leadership challenge of our time. But it has never felt more urgent than this moment, with the coronavirus upending life and business as we know it. Governments are scrambling to mitigate the effects of the outbreak, and business leaders are rushing to protect their people, their customers, and their companies. For the next few weeks, we’ll be drawing on our deep knowledge base about what it takes to lead through the most complex and confounding problems, to offer you insights and advice about how to keep a steady hand on the wheel during the crisis, and how to guide your organization in its transition back to normalcy once the crisis winds down.

We have been studying complexity and helping leaders navigate it for nearly 20 years. While this crisis is absolutely unprecedented, all complex challenges – including this one – are best managed when you understand specific underlying characteristics they all exhibit, and tried-and-true ways to approach them. Today: The critical importance of alignment, how to make sure you’ve got it, and how to make sure you keep it.

Skydivers
GETTY

Misalignment will derail organizational success in just about anything important – and it’s more rampant than most leaders think. A recent MIT Sloan School study of 124 organizations found that only 28% of managers and employees could list three of their company’s top strategic priorities. According to a Harvard Business Review article, “the problem of alignment is so persistent that a body of research has emerged to describe it.”  

Alignment – on goals, mission, strategy, and pretty much anything significant – is one of those keys that can unlock sustained organizational success. At the best of times, alignment is elusive and very difficult to sustain. Right now, when you can’t get your team together in the same room - when individuals are isolated, distracted, and anxious - it’s that much harder.

LEADERS AND THE ALIGNMENT MINDSET

It’s crucial for leaders to systematically build alignment across the organization. And alignment is best served right up-front, during the process of developing strategies and plans. Not after. The first step is developing an alignment mindset, based on five key principles:  

  1. Alignment doesn’t mean agreement with your opinion or your view.  If you are seeking genuine alignment, you must be open to the idea that your position may be wrong.  
  2. Alignment requires the suspension of preconceived notions, assumptions, and biases, which may mean significant movement for several people, including you and maybe especially you. Start by assuming you don’t know what you don’t know and go from there.
  3. Alignment starts from the beginning; to seek alignment you must first answer the question “alignment on what?”  Getting to alignment on a solution has to start with getting to alignment on the problem being solved.
  4. Alignment lies in the realm of the human experience. You can’t align people without engagement and friction. You can’t achieve it in one quick meeting. If your business-as-usual meetings and habits don’t usually produce alignment, don’t expect them to now.
  5. Genuine alignment is worth the extra effort. Deep and durable team alignment up-front saves a lot of resistance, confusion, conflict and churn downstream.

THE EXTRA EFFORT THAT WILL GET YOU TO ALIGNMENT

Here are five steps you can take to secure alignment, even in the context of a global pandemic:

  1. Align on the problem. Express the problem in the form of a really good question and work with a few key people to ensure they agree that’s the question to answer.
  2. Tap into the people who need to be aligned on the answers, as well as the people who will help them get there. Apply the lens of ‘requisite variety’ - which leaders and decision-makers are necessary, who will act, who will be impacted, who will need to influence others? Then also think about whose perspective, thinking style, expertise, background, proximity to customers, (and so on) will be necessary to help get the group aligned on the right answers. You must be part of that requisite-variety group.
  3. Connect these people directly with each other, during the aligning process. In-person connections are always better, but that’s not an option right now. Use video conferencing as the next-best platform to connect every individual directly with every other individual, and do it across several meetings.
  4. Use collisions to fuel the alignment process. Don’t leave the group’s interactions to chance. Assign specific behavioral roles that will force them to listen, to talk, and to critique each other at various times. Act as a model for how to play those roles well. Make the collisions abrupt and focused. Set a tone for frankness and check politeness at the door. Impose time and task discipline. And iterate so that each collision progressively drives people closer to answers they’re aligned on.
  5. Put mechanisms in place to sustain the alignment over time. You worked hard to get your team aligned. To make sure it sticks, you need a strong communication plan, disciplined tracking of the right metrics, regular check-ins, and ways to course-correct as you learn. The course-corrections are crucial - lessons will be learned along the way -  as pilot projects succeed or fail, as things change, as foundational assumptions are confirmed or proven wrong, and as new issues and opportunities arise.

ALIGNMENT CHEAT SHEET This cheat sheet puts the five steps and the five principles together, offering at-a-glance guidance on how to secure and sustain alignment by doing the right things in the right way.

Alignment matrix
SYNTEGRITY

Original article posted on Forbes on April 1, 2020

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