Alignment. A word often heard in board rooms and strategy meetings and seen in the notes of business consultants around the globe. But what is the value of alignment in an organisation and what does it actually mean to us?
Since the outbreak of the Corona Virus global pandemic, leadership specialists and occupational behaviourists have been watching with interest as our corporate habits have changed. At a time when out of necessity remote working and virtual connection has become the absolute norm (one leading UK supermarket has indicated that the pandemic has accelerated business habits by five years), it makes sense of course that we should all be dialling up levels of connection across our teams. In lieu of all those organic, coffee machine touch points, we are hearing examples of virtual coffee mornings, all-hands-online meetings and no-work-allowed Zoom lunchbreaks.
The distance and the connections between us have been thrown into even starker relief in this new world of social distancing and self-isolation. What we are seeing is an important lesson for businesses to remember once we reach the new ‘new normal’ – whatever that looks like. Alignment has never been so needed to motivate our people and to shore-up their support for that which our organisations are really all about.
You may well be familiar with the story of JFK and the janitor at Nasa. The story goes that President John F. Kennedy was visiting NASA headquarters for the first time in 1961. Whilst he was there, he introduced himself to a janitor who was mopping the floor and JFK asked him what he did at NASA. In reply, the janitor said: “I’m helping put a man on the moon!” A small cog in a very big machine he may have been, but there is no doubt that that janitor was fully aligned to the bigger vision of his organisation.
It’s really no surprise that understanding how what we are doing contributes to the bigger picture is often linked to our feelings of value, validation and motivation. When we understand not only what is expected from us, but also why it is expected, we have an opportunity to be part of something that extends beyond our own role. And it is this, ‘being part of something bigger’, that is really at play when it comes to the place of alignment in today’s uncertain landscape.
Both Daniel H Pink, in his book Drive, which considers human motivation and Simon Synek in his book Start with Why, which explores how we can get engagement from those we lead, cite alignment as a hugely powerful tool for leaders seeking to take people with them. If a time of crisis requires good leadership, good leaders require alignment.
What this means in real terms
Despite the uncertainty of today’s world and the fact that for many, the very futures of our businesses are in question, we can nevertheless get behind a common purpose. By a series of translations from business the overarching mission, all the way down to individual job objective, we can follow a path that links every single moving part, every team member, every team to the overall objective.
In a coaching conversation I had recently, this was brought to life when I asked the client what his role was at the moment. He replied, ‘Keeping this business afloat’. It didn’t matter that he was in IT, or legal, or products – he knew that ultimately, his small actions feed into a bigger whole that for now at least is existential in nature.
We are remote from one another. We are apart. We are separate. In any normal context, the concept of alignment with our organisation’s higher purpose is important. Understanding ‘why’ we are expected to do something is integral to the link we make in our minds between our own individual identity and our collective identity.
Now, perhaps more than ever, that alignment is at risk. Whilst so much great work is going on to help us connect with our peers, there’s a risk that we are losing focus on how what we are doing is truly relevant to the wider scheme of things. There is risk of more silo operating, of disengaging from the core mission and in some circumstances of going ‘rogue’.
Leaders are pre-occupied. Making the link between our business mission and the day job of Mary in finance right now may not be high on anyone’s agenda. But we overlook this opportunity to create alignment at our peril. Being remote from one another and navigating unsettled seas requires more clarity on ‘why’ not less if we have any hope of synching, rather than sinking.
Three Tips for Creating Alignment
- Be clear on what the mission really is right now. Ask yourself, what does my organisation exist to do? Has that changed in light of the pandemic? Survival is a valid mission in the current climate.
- Communicate the mission/vision/purpose widely. Ensure that the message is reaching everyone and that it can be easily articulated and understood.
- Translate the mission for your people. How does what your team exist to do link to the bigger picture. If you are a manager of managers, ensure that they are doing the same translation exercise for their people – and so on.
The janitor at Nasa was cleaning the floor, so that Nasa scientists could work in a clean environment, so that they could focus on launching the Apollo spacecraft, so that Nasa could put a man on the moon.