Aligning a complex organization is easier said than done. While we all intuitively understand the benefits of organizational alignment and the general processes by which it’s done, actually achieving that alignment is not a sure bet. Even when successful in a narrow sense, alignment initiatives very often have unintended consequences that leave parts of an organization in worse shape than before. In other cases, alignment initiatives get bogged down in internal misunderstandings or turf wars or tactical failures and can’t be considered successful in any sense.
Alignment initiatives are much more likely to succeed when anchored by broadly applicable principles. Taken together, these principles offer a road map of sorts for those tasked with seeing the initiative through to completion. For best results, approach them in sequential order.
1. Gather Outside-In Data
Another way to put this is: Aim your alignment initiative at a defined external target. You can tinker and iterate with internal process improvements ad infinitum, but without a reference point outside your organization, there’s no guarantee those improvements will make any difference to your competitive position. As your alignment initiative progresses, use the outside-in data you’ve gathered (and continued to gather) to confirm that it remains on track.
2. Figure Out the “So What” (What You’re Optimizing)
Just as it’s futile to make iterative process improvements without an external reference point, it makes little sense to proceed with an alignment with no clear optimization goals in mind. The answer(s) to the question(s) of what your initiative needs to optimize should become apparent once you figure out a) what work creates competitive advantage for your business and b) the true shape of your organization’s brand identity. It should then be clear which functions need to be simplified (optimized) and which will need to adapt to support these newly optimized functions.
3. Distinguish Between the Key Types of Work and Your Organization’s Key Differentiators
At this point, you’ll need to begin making some difficult decisions to optimize the functions that need optimizing and push your alignment initiative forward. Specifically, you’ll need to a) distinguish between the key types of work within your organization and b) prioritize each type of work to ensure proper alignment. In other words, you’ll need to figure out which work is the “dog” (the driver of your organization’s competitive advantage) and which is the “tail” (the support functions that, while important, should always be subordinate to advantage work).
4. Understand How Your Organization Operates as a System
If you’ve made it this far, you’ve probably gained insight into how your organization operates as a system. To sustain your organization’s alignment as its internal needs and external conditions evolve, you’ll need to tune each part of that system to support the competitive advantage work. These parts include internal processes and systems, human roles, and the structure of the organization itself.
5. Properly Sequence and Scope the Alignment
Finally: Before executing the alignment, determine the scope of the initiative and the proper sequence by which it will be implemented. This is important both for efficiency’s sake (avoiding unnecessary or redundant work) and to optimize outcomes (as improper sequencing may necessitate corrective measures on the back end).
Are you facing any challenges in particular as you work to align your organization? What’s working well so far?
The RBL Group’s online library was an invaluable resource for this article and readers are encouraged to explore https://www.rbl.net/ for the latest insights on leadership development and strategic HR.