Based on our experience working with companies of all sizes and our extensive research, here are some best practices that we’ve discovered concerning organizational alignment. You can find additional best practices on our blog.
We hear all the time about the importance of having a mission statement and a clear vision for a company. After all, people need to understand why the company exists and where it is headed. Why, then, do so many companies fail to live up to their mission?
Having a mission or vision statement is not sufficient to create alignment. Leaders of organizations need to make the mission an ingrained part of the company culture. Everybody in the company should know what the mission is and why the company exists. You’d be surprised to hear how few employees in most companies don’t know this simple fact about their company — even veterans who have been there for years. Ask them what the company sells, and they can probably tell you, but not the mission statement.
Even if people understand your mission or vision, what incentive do they have to live up to it? Both Enron and Wells Fargo had well written and coherent mission statements. They also have stated values that should have prevented their respective scandals (and downfalls) from happening in the first place.
If people are held accountable for actions and work that is inconsistent with the mission, it doesn’t matter how compelling the mission is. People will do what they’re incentivized to do. Managers need to carefully design incentives that align with the mission. Leaders need to ensure managers are empowered to do so.
One of the biggest mistakes managers make when trying to align their team is resorting to micromanagement. Micromanagement occurs most often when managers doubt the decision making ability of individuals, causing them to manage every aspect of the work that their team is doing. They may even jump in and start doing some of the work themselves.
The problem with micromanagement is that it is exactly the opposite of alignment. Alignment requires empowering individuals to make the right decisions by providing them the context, incentives, and accountability needed to work on the right things. When managers are micromanaging, they’re side-stepping the alignment process entirely, causing their team to become more misaligned rather than less.
The challenging part of micromanagement vis-a-vis alignment is that it is difficult to spot from afar. Often, the cost of micromanagement isn’t realized until the damage has been done. Senior leaders must pay attention to how their managers are addressing alignment: is it through micromanagement of every detail, or is it through proper context creation and empowerment?
As a company who’s name is a portmanteau of “min(imize) silo(s),” it might be ironic for us to say that not all silos are bad. But it’s true. Silos can be a useful mechanism for keeping people focused on the right activities if managed correctly.
One of the main problems with silos is that they’re designed around function, not outcome. Functional silos, which are commonly drawn down departmental lines, create a chasm between functions that are working towards the same outcome, but separately. It can become so bad that companies can end up launching competing products at the same event and losing out on a once-in-a-generation opportunity.
Another issue with silos is that they’re left unmanaged. Silos can be a useful tool for reducing the cognitive load of individuals in teams. Individuals only have so much attention, so it’s valuable for them to spend on things that drive results. It can also improve the team's performance by having individual contributors specialize (and thus forming a silo around themselves).
By contrast, managers need to be aware of what the broader organization is doing. They should not be relegated to a single silo of information but instead looking for ways to get their team to collaborate (where appropriate) with other teams. Since specialization of individual contributors is most commonly tied to their function (e.g. sales, marketing, engineering, finance, etc.), managers need to ensure their people are not blindly focusing only on their role to the detriment of the organization.
With the recent rise in popularity surrounding remote work, we've heard an increasingly popular refrain: you should over-communicate to make sure everybody gets the message. We disagree. Over-communication is an expensive and potentially hazardous solution to unfocused communication.
The real reason why people feel the need to over-communicate is that they're not sure what information is pertinent to others. An important part of aligning a team is sharing relevant contextual information, not every detail. This does not mean organizations should be opaque internally — far from it. Instead, companies should think about communication in terms of push and pull styles.
Push communication is information that is given to employees through a broadcast channel, during a meeting, or in a one-on-one. It is unsolicited by nature, which means that it needs to be pertinent to the individual receiving it. We've all been on a conference call that focused on information that wasn't relevant to us, and chances are you've tuned them out.
Pull communication is information that employees seek on their own. This is typically found through written or video formats. It can take the form of documentation, recorded meetings, source code, project plans, or any other form of information that an individual can seek out.
Highly transparent organizations should think of ways to keep this information readily discoverable. Enterprise search, organization-wide chat, and a central knowledge repository are all useful tools for this.
Pull communication can safely be more comprehensive because the recipient is already actively engaged and prepared to consume the information. They're unlikely to tune it out if they've sought it out. It's also likely that they're looking at it in context of something they're already doing, so it's already relevant to what they're working on.
The challenging part of pull communication is any subsequent action taken on it. We recommend that managers keep an open dialog with their reports, allowing them to share information about potential new collaboration opportunities based on information that they've discovered about others in their organization.
While alignment requires everybody's buy-in and engagement in an organization, it does not mean that management needs to be done through consensus. In fact, "management by consensus" can be a painfully slow process that leads to more issues than it solves. We recommend organizations choose a management style that is suitable for their needs.
Instead of relying on consensus when making decisions, organizations should focus on:
- collecting feedback and information relevant to what the company is trying to accomplish. There should be a readily accessible system for employees to share feedback and information with leadership, allowing them to make better decisions about its strategy.
- providing context for people to make the right decisions on their own. We recommend managers and leaders delegate decision making the ability to their employees as much as possible. This allows the individuals who are closest to the work to make decisions quickly and align to the needs of both the business and the stakeholders they work with (namely customers).
Here are a few more recommendations when running an organizational alignment program within your company.
- Consider hiring an alignment manager. An alignment manager is responsible for overseeing the process of organizational alignment. They’re different than standard managers because they’re focused on connecting individuals across functions and providing support with alignment to existing mangers. In some ways, alignment managers serve the role of an internal consultant that works across teams and helps managers run effective alignment processes (including assisting them in managing the human side of alignment).
- Don’t assume people understand the metrics that you’ve set. In any alignment activity, it’s vital that people not only hear your company’s strategic priorities but also understand them. Metrics are no different. As Deloitte notes, “management by metrics can markedly improve alignment… [but the efficacy] of this approach will be severely limited if only those at the top of the organization understand the rational for those metrics."
Don’t strive for perfection. Perfect alignment is not the goal of an alignment process. The only way an organization can achieve perfect alignment is by eliminating change and choice. While this may seem tempting, companies that attempt to be perfectly aligned may end up putting themselves out of business in the process.
Instead, treat alignment as a continuous improvement process. The point is to get better over time, not to stay aligned at all times (and all costs). Leaders in an aligned organization need to give careful thought to the balance of adaptivity and alignment.