Organisational Alignment


Last week I posted an extract from Chapter 3 Organisational Structures of the third edition of the book I am writing.  At two points in the chapter I use the word ‘alignment’ as follows:

‘They (Medium) found, however that it was difficult to coordinate efforts at scale – any initiatives, which required coordination across functions took time and effort to gain alignment.’

‘With this and the organisation values in mind, they consulted their team members and drafted a design and implementation plan that ensured alignment of all the organisational elements and supported the collaborative principles on which ATD was founded.’

I’ve also used the word ‘alignment’ twice in Chapter 1 and once in Chapter 2.  Chapter 4, which I’ll be sharing an extract from next week, also has two mentions of ‘alignment’.  I’m not sure yet how many times I’ll use the word ‘alignment’ in chapters 5 – 9, but I’m now on high alert to it.

I’m on high alert because Jim Shillady, one of the book group members I’m working with, made the point that:  ‘There are a couple of places in the chapter – more in the book generally- where we ask people either to align this with that or to check that two or more things are aligned.  This always makes me wonder how we would answer those readers who respond by asking ‘how do we align?’ or ‘how can we tell when we are aligned’?

Thus, last Thursday, at our bi-weekly meeting, we discussed these questions and the discussion is still going strong, now via email.

Alignment is a frequently used word in organisation design and Jim asks whether it needs more explanation than the general understanding of it – that things need to be running in sync.  An analogy is wheel alignment on a vehicle: vehicle owners know that hitting a pothole or kerb can put the wheels out of alignment resulting in excessive wear to tyres and problems with the steering or suspension.  They regularly check the alignment of the wheels.

An HBR article, authored by Jonathan Trevor and Barry Varcoe,  How Aligned is your Organization,  notes that ‘Most executives today know their enterprises should be aligned. They know their strategies, organizational capabilities, resources, and management systems should all be arranged to support the enterprise’s purpose.’

The article describes alignment as being a ‘tightly managed enterprise value chain that connects an enterprise’s purpose (what we do and why we do it) to its business strategy (what we are trying to do to fulfil our purpose), organizational capability (what we need to be good at), resource architecture (what makes us good), and, finally, management systems (what delivers the performance we need).’  They cite McDonald’s as being an example of a well aligned organisation.

Organisational alignment is defined and looked at in other ways, apart from through the value chain.  For example, strategic alignment is discussed in a bizzdesign blog describing it as ‘the ability to create a fit or synergy between the position of the organization within the environment and the design of the appropriate business processes, resources and capabilities to support the execution.

Similarly, a research article, Competing Perspectives on the Link Between Strategic Information Technology Alignment and Organizational Agility: Insights from a Mediation Model on the links between IT alignment and organisational agility (using the value chain as a generic outline of the processes in a firm) reports, ‘Our research reveals that alignment is a potent source of value and worthy of the priority status consistently afforded it by top executives.’

Jonathon Trevor co-author of the HBR article mentioned earlier has a long, but worth listening to, webinar ‘How to Lead Strategic Alignment‘, where he points out, “We know that the best aligned enterprises are also the highest performing enterprises—the most change ready, and the most resilient. We must therefore be developing within our corporations, the leadership capabilities required to achieve that strategic alignment, as a matter of urgency.’

So, at this point it seems fair to say that organisational alignment, i.e. having all the elements in sync, is ‘a good thing’?   However, that doesn’t help much with how do we align and how will we know that we are aligned?

On ‘how do we align?’, reading the research article, Competing Perspectives …,  just mentioned, I wondered whether focusing on IT as the ‘spine’ of alignment activity might act to impel other organisational elements towards alignment.  (This article  has a useful  illustrative table on where IT can align to business strategy in 5 business processes).

As started to amble down this path of thinking, I came across another article discussing product aligned v capability aligned organisation design  with the author, Nick Tune, discussing the pros and cons of each in some detail and yet ending up being dissatisfied by the distinction, concluding, ‘how do we actually find the perfect boundaries? I’m still working on that.’

And then I found an interesting ‘how to ‘ suggestion from Chris McDermott  on mapping alignment, including the chain of social practices and the quality of the relationships between them.  This comes closer to the discussion we, the book work group, were having.  This ‘how to design alignment’ is still being pursued by us, but as it currently stands (thanks to Jim Shillady and Giles Slinger for working more on it) we are discussing that alignment is brought about by designing:

  • Alignment in construction: hard design elements such as processes, information flow, metrics, role descriptions, team structures, incentives
  • Alignment in current reality: the shared understanding of the complex reality on the ground – how things are really being done now
  • Alignment in orientation: a common compass point or set of values, purpose, culture
  • Alignment in how construction, reality and orientation will be if we succeed in creating (designing) necessary changes

There is a model and there may be a checklist or other tool(s) to go with these four points.

The final question ‘How will we know we are aligned?’ led to a discussion on two approaches and we advise doing both. First is the technocratic/data driven approach where you focus on the hard design elements and see where there are disconnects, or gaps, or misalignments.  I’ve often used a radar chart as a tool to aid this activity.

As an example of the technocratic, an alignment disconnect that I frequently come across is a performance management and reward system designed to foster individual competitive performance with a value around ‘one-team’ and ‘collaboration’.  Another is a desire for a ‘seamless customer journey’, but one where you find the customer journeys through multiple handover points that require them to repeat information just given.

The second approach to finding out if an organisation is aligned is the human signal detection approach where you ask the question ‘What about the alignment of the design do you feel uneasy about?’  Or ‘What do we need to discuss further about this’.  This plays to more to instinct, intuition and experience and is a helpful complement to the more technocratic/data driven approach – in essence you are getting a quantitative and a qualitative view of alignment.

In discussing alignment I began to wonder whether constantly aiming for it – which is necessary as things change so rapidly – is really continuous design.   I’ll be developing this idea (or not!) in Chapter 5 which is on continuous design.

What’s your view of what alignment is, how to design an aligned organisation and how you know when you have one?