It’s rare these days to find a manager or group leader who isn’t aware of the importance of alignment. Discussing goals and purpose is often the first thing on the agenda for an annual meeting or a kick-off meeting for a team.
The trouble is that those rare meetings are often the only time that alignment is discussed. And that’s a big mistake. Alignment between people is just like the alignment on your car: it gets out of whack with wear and tear.
As we all know, real life often intervenes and changes our understanding of a situation. You think you understand a goal and then the more you talk with colleagues, you come to a different interpretation. Someone else who has the same goals talks to different people and comes to a separate interpretation. Or new information arises that changes the priority of a goal or shifts the aim. Once the trajectories are shifted, the differences in the interpretations get further and further apart, which can have a very real impact on the business.
For example, at one manufacturing company there was great friction between Claudia (head of engineering) and Derek (the head of production). Claudia and Derek often thought they were in complete agreement on an overall direction after their executive team meetings, but different perspectives would start to evolve once they were on their own, talking only with their own departments. And since they both thought (erroneously) they were starting from a common viewpoint, they each blamed the other when everything fell apart later on. No wonder the two of them didn’t get along at all and that those attitudes cascaded down through their departments.
What Claudia and Derek had to learn was that they needed to think of alignment as a dynamic process not a static outcome. If they did not regularly check their alignment and do course corrections, it wasn’t long before their groups fell out of alignment.
In case you think Claudia and Derek’s experience is unrealistic, here’s an exercise for you:
The next time any group or team you work with gets together, ask everyone to write down their own view of the specific purpose of that team. Why do they think that team exists? Then go around the room and have everyone read their statements out loud. The odds are good that you’ll hear a lot of different perceptions! In fact, you’d likely get a lot of different answers even if you just asked people to write down the purpose of that particular meeting.
By its nature, alignment is highly susceptible to entropy—the tendency of the world to drift towards disorder. That’s why if you want to improve the performance of any group or team, you can’t accept “perceived” alignment. Don’t listen to people who say discussing alignment again is not necessary because “we are already aligned.” If you treat alignment as a one-and-done event, the odds are very high that your group or company will soon be out of alignment.
The lesson is true not just around issues of where you’re going (goals and purpose) but also how you’re going to get there (ground rules, processes, roles, responsibilities, etc.).
In fact, we urge you to think of alignment as a new kind of contact sport. You have to have regular contact with those you want to stay aligned with, and check on whether you’re still headed in the same direction. Checking alignment can be as simple as revisiting the statement you crafted to describe what you decided to align around: Do we still agree on this purpose? Has anything changed to affect this goal? Is the guideline we established working for all of us?
The much trickier part of checking alignment is that you’ll need to do it most when you want to do it least. As Claudia and Derek’s story illustrated, people and groups who are not aligned can easily fall into patterns of blame and resentment. When that happens, nobody… and we do mean nobody… on either side wants to get together to have a friendly “what do we have in common” chat. But you need to take control of the reins and get your people and groups to agree on specific goals and guidelines.
|TIP: Write it down, make it visible|
|Documenting agreements is essential in maintaining alignment. It also helps to post the agreements in a way that is visible to everyone in your team or group. For example, when your group agrees on something — goals, ground rules, responsibilities, etc. — write down the decision on a flipchart that can be posted for all to see at every meeting.|
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About the AuthorMore Content by Max Isaac