Maligning Alignment

I’m not sure how it happened, but one morning I woke up and “alignment” had turned into a dirty word treated with the same disdain as other corporate buzzwords such as synergy, paradigm shift, and collaboration.  I hear executives going out of their way to disparage the word. Alignment is much maligned.

Given that this blog is hosted at and that my last company’s slogan was “aligning execution with strategy”, you’re probably not surprised that I wince when it happens.  The goal of alignment is to get everyone on the same page.  Are executives suggesting that they don’t want people to be better synchronized? 

Of course not.

So what’s wrong? People are sick of endless meetings and phone calls.  They are sick of trying to get agreement after the fact.  They are really sick of discovering that they’ve done a lot of valuable work that is unnecessarily conflicting with other groups. Or worse, work that is not needed because it’s no longer tied to the strategy.

And that’s the key.  True alignment should be the result of cascading strategy. True alignment comes with shared objectives, contributory KPIs, and outcome-based initiatives.

You spend less time working on alignment with the right organizational structure.  Fewer silos, fewer hand-offs.  You spend less time working on alignment with transparency of motivations.  Understand bias, understand perspective.

All of this is done before any issues arise.

So go ahead and berate after-the-fact alignment.  Stop getting on the unnecessary conference calls.   Stop using the word, if you like.

But get people on the same page.  Commit to becoming an alignment focused organization.

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6 Responses to Maligning Alignment

  1. Muthu Ranganathan April 20, 2010 at 5:35 pm #

    This is a very valid thought. alignment or consensus often results in slow decision making and slower action, making the execution alignment to strategy an issue. Its more of a company culture issue – few companies do the consensus way of things, few do not. But its important to have strategy alignment to go towards the common objectives of the organization. The execution part should be handled by single person directing and driving, else would result in chaos

  2. Madhur A April 20, 2010 at 7:04 pm #

    The key to me is “True alignment comes with shared objectives, contributory KPIs, and outcome-based initiatives.”

    To achieve this requires leaders with strong decision-making skills in the face of uncertainity/imperfect information, clear definition of roles and responsibilities (not perfect just clear) and willingness to hold people accountable. And for the rest of us it means understanding our role in the bigger picture and being comfortable with what is expected of us (then only we would be able to deliver those contributory KPI’s.)

    The after-the-fact alignment is a outcome of leaderships failure to make/communicate decisions and the ability of a select few to leverage that to perpetuate confusion for their personal benefit (protect their fiefdom, hide incompetence, poach other parts of org etc.) in the name of alignment. Hence, alignment is much maligned.

  3. Oski April 21, 2010 at 8:26 am #

    It’s the process of getting to alignment that causes concern. I just pushed through an initiative that required 12 (yes, count ’em, twelve) different teams to sign off before it could be even put before the top brass for the final sign-off. This is crazy!

    The problem is there are many interests in any large company and it is important that no one group does anything that is counter to the interests of another. The obvious solution is to make sure you run your plan past each possible “stakeholder” and make sure no ones applecart gets upset. This leads to situations like the ones I just went through.

    What if, instead, the organization was designed in such a way that alignment was built in? This way there is no option but to march in lockstep. What if, we dealt with exceptions as they occurred rather than force each initiative to pay the alignment tax? Would this be cheaper overall? What if, we obtained alignment the same way the market aligns capital allocations? It would be messy but probably much more efficient.

    I do not know the solution to this issue but it is clear what we are doing today does not work.

  4. Jonathan April 22, 2010 at 6:56 am #

    Muthu/Madhur/Oski, thanks for your comments. Clearly each of you have battled with the challenges of “after the fact alignment”. Better organizational design would definitely help, as would leadership committment to more transparency and shared objectives.

  5. MH June 4, 2010 at 8:27 am #

    Another word for “alignment” is Nemawashi. I always liked that term much better than “alignment” because it better captures the spirit you describe in posting: getting everyone on the same page and agreement about what we’re going to do and why. (i.e. align strategy with execution!)

    From Wikipedia: Nemawashi (根回し) in Japanese means an informal process of quietly laying the foundation for some proposed change or project, by talking to the people concerned, gathering support and feedback, and so forth. It is considered an important element in any major change, before any formal steps are taken, and successful nemawashi enables changes to be carried out with the consent of all sides.

  6. Jonathan June 4, 2010 at 6:25 pm #

    Thanks for sharing this. I like this enough that I’ll try to introduce the word in my interactions at work.

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