Alignment: Key Component in the Validation Phase of Change Leadership

I recently purchased a new set of tires for my vehicle. The purchase price included some incremental charges for mounting, balancing, valve stems – all the components and automatic installation extras one would expect. I mean really – what good is a new set of tires if not mounted to the rims? Who would drive away without all four tires in perfect balance? Almost as automatic was a four-wheel alignment – a process having less to do with the primary function of a new set of tires and more to do with the operational integrity of travelling down the road. Despite being an optional add-on to a new tire purchase, alignment is mandatory to maximize performance and life expectancy of new tires. Is introducing Change within the organization that much different than installing a new set of tires?

Benefits of alignment and all its variations we seek in the course of running a small company, a single business unit, or an entire organization are, surprisingly, very similar for the same reasons proven appropriate for our vehicles. See Figure 1.

Wheels vs. People
Figure 1

Business alignment begins when senior leadership comes to consensus on strategic business plans intended to move the business forward. It is a safe bet that strategic planning either calls for immediate change in tactics, or it anticipates change over the course of the plan. Invariably, failure is imminent if alignment never makes it out of the thick carpet of the executive suite and into the organization. Therein lays a challenge we often overlook – effective downstream alignment. The question we must answer is – How deep should business alignment go?

For the entirety of the organization to track in the same direction, the driver of a forklift in the warehouse should be as aligned with the mission as his senior leadership. Seems a little extreme when we consider the forklift driver does not have strategic thinking listed as one of his job accountabilities, and, I doubt if it is a competency either. Nevertheless, the forklift driver’s business contribution to business strategy is manifest as job-specific outcomes, and those outcomes require aligned, effective, human performance. At this lower level in the organizational hierarchy, alignment is still mission-critical. What differs from the thick carpet version is the message context of the mission and the necessity of buy-in within the scope of that discrete context. At this level, everyone is a contributor, and everyone should have skin in the game. Does alignment go that deep in your organization?

If you are driving your business toward aggressive goals or objectives, then everyone from boardroom to warehouse should be on the same page. This is not as cliché as it sounds. While everyone may be on the same page, each may actually be at different points on that page. Chances are good they may be (even…should be) reading something different depending on where they are in the organization. As leaders, we all would like to think we have a fully aligned work force. The question that matters most is – How aligned are each and every one of us?

Here is a simple test to determine to what extent alignment exists. Go back to that forklift driver and ask him to define the corporate mission. Sound ridiculous? Well, it is…but only to an extent. If you are hoping to have him read back the leadership version of the mission, you will be sadly disappointed. Quite honestly, that version is of little value to the operator of a forklift, or for that matter, most other individual contributors, and yet, he certainly does produce contribution that is both relevant and critical to the overall business mission. What he can align with as most important to his mission are those aspects local to his role and work function.

Inclusion and Localization

The local version of corporate vision or goals is often lost, or worse; never articulated or reinforced down through the organization to the individual contributors who are in a position to make or break success of the mission. To accomplish this, choose any contributor’s position in the organization – isolate it from the rest of the organization – and consider it as a point of reference. For that position to be in alignment with the corporate mission, it has upstream and downstream role responsibilities specific to any change that affects them. They may be on the receiving end of change that flows downstream to them, or they may be at ground zero to a change event making their work output a downstream change for another work group. Articulating alignment at this, or any other level, in the organization requires a localized version of the big picture mission. This localization implies tailored communications that articulate expectation of contribution of each role with both corporate mission as well as other roles interdependent to their performance outcomes.

An organization is full of interdependencies, and this is of particular importance when disparate work groups have different work responsibilities, different workflows and processes, different performance outcomes, different motivations and incentives, and different success metrics. Given those differences, does it not make sense that the big picture message of mission should reflect the local nature of work as a function of their discrete business contribution?

Every contributor, regardless of level should know three things about the corporate mission:
Inclusive Role Why is my role important to the mission?
Localized Role Why is my department important to the mission?
Tangible Outcomes What do I/we produce that matters if successful in our role?

As we can see, alignment is not a singular effort to inform people across the enterprise. Articulation of alignment occurs at multiple levels, in multiple messages, and within that mix, localization is shaped at each discrete level, role, and function. Leadership’s consensus version of the mission lacks that level of local visibility; it serves as a benchmark from which inclusive and localized targets must be established and linked to relevant, tangible performance outcomes. Localization is like propulsion on a Viking warship; everyone has his own oar; but to be effective, all must align and synchronize their efforts to propel the boat forward.

Here is a perfect real-world example. In the early 1990’s, I worked for Sprint Communications in their long distance division. A hot shot, ex-AT&T executive named Gary Forsee joined the team as the new president of our division tasked to turn sagging sales around. He did. At the time, I worked in the sales training group and will never forget the inclusive message he shared with our team in our first meeting. It was brief; and most importantly – empowering. Simply put:

“We must grow our business. If what you spend your day doing does not enable the sale of new minutes on our network, you need to question the necessity of doing it.”

Believe me, that simple message provided a tangible target for everyone in our group. He gave that same speech to every other work group too, and it carried the same weight and urgency from which we all fashioned our role-specific, localized, messages of mission. He never told us what to do; rather, he told us what to accomplish & why it was important, and he did it in the context of our localized sales training contribution to the larger mission. Everyone knew what his or her contribution needed to be in order to affect the overall corporate mission. His simple statement was our benchmark from which we could easily align both our departmental and individual contributions. Do you provide clear, concise inclusive messages of mission to your organization from which they can benchmark and align their localized contributions?

Alignment Is Not Limited to Mission

The reality of alignment becomes a multi-headed monster. Truly, alignment must remain consistent with corporate objectives; however, there are implications of alignment that drive interdependency within the planning, development and implementation of a continuous learning strategy.

Up to this point, focus has been limited to articulating a mission that is inclusive and locally discrete to specific roles and functions. From a Learning and Performance perspective, alignment becomes even more critical. Now we will concentrate on the what-needs-to-be-accomplished contribution to mission – and that means human performance. Accomplishment requires productivity. Productivity requires effective performance, and we confirm effective performance through measurement of different outcome metrics. When these metrics do not add up to targets necessary to meet productivity goals, performance gaps need researched to determine root cause. When root cause(s) point to gaps related to knowledge, skill, and capability deficiencies, an aligned strategy that enables continuous learning must be in place to close them.

Application of effective learning creates a critical need for alignment within the learner’s work context, and that includes both formal and informal learning. Alignment now embraces a more tactical focus when continuous learning must impact localized business objectives through providing the right learning…to the right people…in the right amount…at the right moment of learning need…in the right format…and to/from the right device(s).

Unfortunately, alignment is not a singular event. Running over major bumps, potholes, and the occasional curb can easily knock alignment off kilter. Failure to realign the wheels promptly may soon result in poor performance and ultimately tire damage if left uncorrected. The organization hits bumps in the road too, making change as continuous as the flow of work. Our job is remaining vigilant to our alignment with the mission given the continuous nature of change. When we are no longer tracking straight, re-alignment becomes critically important lest we experience a failure that a new set of tires cannot fix.

Note: Validation is the first of ten components of a replicable Change Leadership Model – for more, read the post titled – “Change Leadership: When Change Management Is Not Enough

Gary Wise
Learning & Performance Solutions Strategist
LinkedIn Profile
Twitter: Gdogwise