With our powers combined: Alignment and transformation

With our powers combined: Alignment and transformation

Continuing this mini-series on autonomy and alignment, we’re looking at alignment and how it relates to enterprise transformation. Alignment is one of those buzzwords that sounds like a good thing. But we don’t often stop to think about what it really means and how to achieve it.


What is alignment?

If autonomy was all about letting teams define how they’ll complete their work, alignment refers to the relationships between groups. Ideally, by connecting teams in productive ways, the enterprise will achieve an outcome that’s different from what any group could do alone. Often people refer to linking goals, objectives, incentives, decisions, knowledge, or plans so that there’s some consistency between the groups. If you think about it as a Venn diagram, alignment covers the activities, artifacts, and people shared by both groups, and autonomy covers the rest.

Alignment also appears in the context of building alliances. By uniting the groups, more resources are available for the cause, such as people, money, or influence. For example, an enterprise with IT and business alignment will ensure that actions occurring on both sides contribute to the broader goals. In contrast, an enterprise without that alignment would mean each group uses their resources to achieve that unit’s individual goals. Which may or may not contribute to the enterprise goals, or support the other unit’s needs.

Alignment doesn’t always lead to positive outcomes. It’s more of a tool to group smaller units into larger ones to employ as needed. You can have enterprise alignment in a direction that will drive you out of business or hurt the environment. But you can also leverage alignment to serve a societal need while being financially sustainable.


The benefits of alignment for transformation

One big advantage of alignment is that it can help you achieve large goals. The types of goals that require the expertise and resources of multiple groups to accomplish. Governments and institutions are classic examples of how the alignment of smaller groups and individuals can lead to wider impact. Transforming an end-to-end value stream in a company generally requires alignment of multiple business units and teams.

Alignment can also help you reduce resources spent in areas outside of those goals, or in work that is ultimately “wasted.” Without alignment, groups may pursue a path that doesn’t contribute meaningfully to the broader goals. Or run into delays and issues when they go to integrate, as a result of mismatched priorities, schedules, or interfaces with other teams or the broader system. They may also replicate existing work, whether that’s a research report or a new system (this happens more often than it should). That means that time, money, and brain power was spent on areas that didn’t lead to the creation of new value or knowledge to serve the broader mission.


Alignment in a highly-constrained environment

Creating alignment between teams

A challenge for making changes in a highly-constrained environment is that you generally have fewer options. There are fewer degrees of freedom and levers to pull. Working with a blank page is a different starting point than walking into an existing enterprise with its own products, social dynamics, stakeholders, expectations, rules, and resources.

The enterprise may already have a stated purpose or a reason for existing. If not, that will need to be defined and shared. Focus future hiring around people who are equipped and motivated to help achieve that purpose. In the meantime, sometimes just sharing what it is will be enough for teams to shift their decisions to support it. If not, taking that step will help highlight where the remaining bottlenecks are.

A highly-constrained environment also includes existing factions with their own perspectives, alliances and maybe also enemies. Since we can’t start from scratch, we need to understand how each group perceives their own identity and purpose. This happens often when business units, representatives, or contractors see themselves as serving different customers or interests. They make logical conclusions given their worldview and personal objectives, which don’t always contribute to the broader enterprise goals. You may need to point to a higher-level identity to align them. For example, if contractors see the project management office (PMO) as their customer, and the PMO sees business stakeholders as their customer, while the enterprise serves other external customers. Reframing everyone’s role as a player in building a better business that serves the external customers can help move past the existing identities.

You can also amplify existing interconnections. One of the tips for encouraging change we talked about in an earlier post was finding the bright spot and increasing it. By identifying where people are already aligned, whether that’s two teams or hallway conversations and building from there, we can leverage existing motivations and ways of working into a broader movement.

Other tools

Visuals, maps, models, and prototypes align us by taking what we’re thinking, perceiving, and saying and formatting it into something that we can see, touch, play with, and discuss. These tools are very effective for highly-constrained environments. Where the options forward are limited, the challenge is unclear, or the consequences of failure are severe.

Language is one of the most common areas where people fail to connect and cross the divide. They talk around each other or end up in disagreements. Overlook issues and opportunities because they’re using different words to describe the world and the problem they’re trying to solve. Frameworks, metaphors, and symbols can help unite disciplines around a new language. In a highly-constrained environment, I’d look here early for ways to quickly add value just by clarifying the language used. The terms and definitions. Most groups are more in alignment than they would initially appear from the words they’re using.

Dashboards can also be effective tools if they surface key information from all over the business. In a highly-constrained environment, you probably won’t have access to all of the data that you’d like at first, but dashboards can be a good early investment to save time spent in face-to-face communication if you’re low on people.

Traditional environments may get a bad rap for not embracing change, but traditions can be helpful for alignment. They connect us with each other and the past. They’re a way to see progress over time (“remember last time?”) and to build culture. Traditions are habits that are easier to stick with because they often carry emotional sentiments or peer pressure to participate. Ceremonies, processes, and documents can all be traditions. And they don’t need to be just for show. Activities like co-planning can both align teams and help get things done at the same time. You could consider tweaking the format of existing traditions or creating new ones to leverage the advantages of consistency without locking yourself into the status quo business model or product line.

Checkpoints for people to communicate and share stories have existed throughout human history. From camp fires and messengers to conferences and instant messaging. They’re an easy and simple way to share information, stories, and bond. In highly-constrained environments, schedules are tight or hierarchies may be rigid. In that case, carefully selected and configured tools can be a productive way to share key information with the relevant parties.

With an interface management approach, groups can be black boxes, as long as the interfaces are specified. This is a popular mechanism nowadays to quickly connect tools and build capabilities larger and more cheaply than what would be possible in-house. A focus on interface management via agreements can help to ensure alignment between groups without needing to understand or control all of the inner workings. Representatives are another common tool for aligning groups through a human interface. Representatives should be able to speak on behalf of the people they represent, gathering information from them and reporting back. In highly-constrained environments, this is often a good starting point before we can find other ways to align the other individuals in the group.

Standards and templates for working can provide alignment in certain areas to ensure interconnectivity, cohesiveness, and quality, while leaving room for creativity elsewhere. Standards can speak to the interfaces, how we do the work, or when the work is considered complete and ready to handoff to the next phase of the life cycle.

Metrics and success measures are another tool. By setting outcomes you can give people a target to aim for while being flexible about how they get to that result. They can figure out how to improve their performance along those metrics. Setting good metrics can be tricky because it can lead to unintended outcomes in complex systems. For example, maximizing one group’s metrics could hurt the overall system goal when feedback loops are present.

Policies or markets (aka incentives created by someone on high) are other options. By setting some rules of the game and letting people operate within those rules, you can create some alignment but the emerging behavior may or may not result in the final outcomes you were looking for. This is like intentionally creating a market of micro-enterprises and requiring your teams to negotiate with each other to trade services or build their own alliances.


Making decisions

Defining and publicizing your values and goals are a fast way for other people to make decisions on their own. Disney does this with their Quality Standards of Safety, Courtesy, Show, and Efficiency. Cast members make decisions by focusing on those standards, in that order.

Having a cross-functional team of analysts, architects, and designers looking at the overall solution is another way to improve alignment. They could be matrixed from smaller teams, or a full-time staff that pulls in team members as subject-matter experts. This team focuses on the end-to-end current and future state, transition phases and integration points between the groups. They help other groups see how their work fits into the big picture.

Ceremonies and traditions are another way to improve alignment around decision making. If people know when and where knowledge will be shared and decisions made, it frees up the rest of their time to prepare for that decision, provide feedback, or act on previous ones.

You could also try setting a code of conduct for the non-negotiables and letting the teams do whatever they want from there. For example, constitutions, team agreements, bylaws. What’s listed in that agreement needs to be followed but anything else is fair game.


Alignment isn’t always enough

An aligned environment can be at best inspiring. But at worst counteract the drivers of individual motivation, which include autonomy, purpose, and mastery. If people are aligned around a purpose they don’t believe in, are unable to improve their skills, or lack control of their work, alignment can hinder individual progress, even if the group as a whole has a mandate. Alignment can also lead to a one-track-minded enterprise. If the organization values agreeing and being in sync more than questioning which direction it should really be going in. “Rebels” and “troublemakers” play an important role in transformation. In an effort to be one culture focused on one mission, an enterprise can end up excluding viewpoints that would help fill in their blind spots.

Next post, we’ll explore some ways to balance autonomy and alignment.

What does alignment look like for your organization? Where does it work well? Where do you run into challenges?

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