Complete Guide to Organizational Alignment

Total reading time: 108 minutes

Introduction

At Minsilo, we’re dedicated to helping companies manage alignment. We’ve seen firsthand the impact that having strong alignment has on the performance of a business. Among other benefits, companies with strong alignment experience:

  • Higher profitability
  • Reduced operating costs and less waste
  • Increased customer satisfaction
  • Improved employee retention

Whether you're a manager, senior executive, or a high-performing contributor, organizational alignment is critical to succeeding in 2020. Alignment is a key differentiator between companies that merely exist in a category and those that lead their category. It is foundational to high performing teams and companies.

While most leaders recognize the importance of alignment, it can be difficult to start managing it. Alignment takes more than simply communicating more or adopting a system (like OKRs). Effective alignment requires active management and a well-honed strategy.

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Alignment is fundamentally about how we work together. It is also at the core of how we manage people. Modern managers create the context for great work to happen, then align their people around that context.

With the sudden rise of full-time remote work and economic turbulence for many industries, the need to rethink how we work is here. Only companies that can adapt quickly and align their people around a common strategy will survive in these tough times. We wrote this guide to help leaders at all levels of an organization master the art and science of managing alignment, with practical examples and actionable guidance.

Why we created this guide

We created this guide after five years of research and hands-on experience working to piece together a robust framework for managing alignment. In years past, the discussion of organizational alignment has been mostly passive; experts would write about alignment as an important but elusive goal that companies should attain. Today, leaders can no longer think about alignment as an outcome.

Alignment is an ongoing process that needs to be managed.

We're not the first to write about alignment. Hundreds of articles, research papers, and blog posts — not to mention several books — have been penned with alignment as their main topic. Most of these publications fall into one of two categories:

  • Anecdotal — these are resources that talk about a specific company's experience with alignment. In some cases, they’re written by consultants and discuss several companies. While engaging, these resources rarely provide a rigorous analysis of alignment and fail to adequately discuss first principles.
  • Abstract — these are resources that talk about organizational alignment in the abstract. They may present models or tactics for aligning an organization. Leaders trying to align their team using one of these resources need to invest time to develop their own practices.

Many of these resources take a myopic look at specific facets of alignment but fail to address the "big picture" considerations that managers need to make when deciding on an organizational alignment strategy. Some extol the virtues of alignment "best practices" that every company should follow.

As Jonathan Trevor correctly points out in the introduction to his pioneering 2019 book Align: A Leadership Blueprint for Aligning Enterprise Purpose, Strategy, and Organization, there are no "universal best practices" in alignment.

Trevor instead recommends companies look at alignment from the perspective of fit: what is the right strategy and approach for my business? Every company should craft their own alignment strategy, tailoring their plan of execution to their business's needs and the goals they're trying to achieve.

Moreover, many alignment resources today are focused on traditional, Industrial Era businesses. These resources describe how to align people to improve efficiency and quality. While this may be appropriate if you're running a manufacturing operation, these resources do little to help businesses that mostly involve knowledge work.

Companies that manage knowledge workers need a modern way to approach alignment. Instead of efficiency, these companies need a system that values individual contribution, customer centricity, and empowering employees to make decisions.

Our bias

We believe that organizations must manage alignment directly to be successful. Alignment is not a side effect of communication, but rather a primary outcome. We've seen countless examples where strong alignment allowed companies to be more profitable and more competitive than their non-aligned peers.

We also believe in increasing employee autonomy. We built Minsilo to help managers shift their focus from day-to-day execution (administrative) to the tactical and strategic. The result of this shift is management that is more responsive to customers and more scalable operationally.

Applying people science

Communication is fundamentally human. Alignment is created through communication. So why is the human factor so often omitted from the topic of alignment?

We won't begin to speculate on the source of this omission, but we will share our view: psychology dictates so much in alignment. Leaders that want to truly align their company need to think about the incentives and motivations that drive their workforce. Why people decide to do something is as important as what they do.

Another focus for leaders should be the way people work. Industrial & Organizational (IO) psychology studies the way people behave at work and provides insight into how to manage people effectively. There is no benefit to leaders to make management decisions on a false set of beliefs about how people work.

Pedagogy, the study of how people teach others, also plays a role. One of the flawed assumptions that permeate education is the belief that every person learns the same way. In reality, every person learns and comprehends information slightly differently. While the theory of "learning styles" is mostly debunked, leaders need to think carefully about how they convey information to their workforce. Multi-modal communication, for example, is proven to boost comprehension and understanding.

Like psychology, leaders need to be realistic about how the information they communicate with their people is understood. There is no benefit to operating on an idealistic model of how people learn and work; leaders should instead focus on the efficacy of their alignment efforts. The better leaders design their alignment strategy around how people really work, the more likely their business will reap the reward of strong alignment.