"If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together." - African Proverb
What do you want to achieve? If your objective requires the effort of others and you want sustainable and energetic implementation, your objective will require alignment. The plain reality is that your idea, however objectively brilliant, cannot thrive unless there is subjective agreement to implement it. All group change is forged through the process of alignment. This fundamental truth makes alignment a central skill in any leader’s toolkit. In an environment preoccupied with speed, how many of us are really willing to go slow to go fast? How many of us have deliberate methods to build alignment?
Don’t take alignment for granted. View it as the outcome of the process. Assess your personal commitment to achieving the alignment. Your organization needs it for faster change where initiatives run under their own energy, not through continuous oversight and compliance mechanisms. Your time and energy are then freed to address the strategic concerns of your leadership role.
We all like certainty. This puts perspective into the claim that people don’t resist change but instead the discomfort of ambiguity, uncertainty, and lack of control. When these psychological states are present in an organization’s change initiative, leaders normally call the associated, self-protective behaviors resistance. The familiar remedy is more push, more driving force. The common result is that an equal and opposite force emerges to counter the increased pressure. Heels dig in. Tension increases. Behavior deteriorates.
You must pay to change anything. If the change is small and developmental, the price is generally low. If the change is transformational, one that requires a shift in culture and behavior, you can expect the price to be high. There are two types of payments – commitment payments and resistance payments. Said a bit more memorably, “pay now or pay later”. Your choice will influence overall implementation speed, commitment levels, sustainability, and total organization energy required in the change effort.
Pay Now (Commitment Payment)
|Pay Later (Resistance Payment)|
|Price of Resistance||Paid Early||Paid Later|
|Initial implementation speed||Slow||Fast|
|Overall implementation speed||Faster||Slower|
Principles are a North Star. They’re always present, reliable, and useful for navigating uncertainty. The principles you can use for achieving alignment are co-creation, appreciation, and decision clarity.
The first alignment principle is co-creation. Having a bit of fun with a past presidential campaign message, we might say, “It’s the Process, Stupid.” This principle requires leaders to have interests, not positions. It requires bringing people with differentiated points of view and influence in the organization into the creative process. It demands patience as the group processes data while forming and re-forming solution proposals. To co-create is to bring others along the journey into commitment.
The second principle is appreciation. A good friend of mine, Patty Beach, coined the phrase, “Give SHUVA”. It means leaders must be deliberate in their approach to make people feel seen, heard, understood, valued, and appreciated. Others might call this a framework to create psychological safety. By any name or any source, the idea is the same. If you want people to contribute and engage with the process of co-creation, you must believe they have something to add and be prepared to demonstrate this belief.
The third principle is decision clarity. It is useful to establish decision clarity early in any alignment process. Two of the more useful decision methods are consensus and formal authority. A consensus is not unanimous consent. It means each member in a group believes he or she has had a fair opportunity to influence the decision. The decision method is very effective at creating committed alignment, but it does consume time. Remember “go slow to go fast”? Formal authority is decision rights conferred by a leader’s position in the group. It is best used carefully, after a consensus-based process, and generally to move a process forward when a group simply can’t reach a consensus decision.
Organization redesign brings these concepts together. A leader endeavoring to redesign an organization must confront very early the strategic choice of the change strategy. Pay now is collaborative redesign. It will make heavy use of the alignment process, principles, and practices. It will build commitment that will pull change into place and achieve organization transformation more quickly and with less overall investment in time and organization energy compared to the contrasting push strategy.
Consider the Foundation Phase of ON THE MARK’s redesign process. Here, members of a design team must make several fundamental decisions with consequential downstream impact. Members of the design team are commonly drawn from various leadership positions representing the scope of the redesign. These members may have different opinions about how to best make these fundamental decisions. Consider the math. If each of twelve decisions has 90% incoming agreement, then over the entire set of twelve decisions the predicted summary agreement is 28%. An effective alignment process is necessary to move forward together.
Collaborative re-design is an alignment and transformation process at a large scale. If you want to achieve change readiness, which is the point in the commitment journey where organization members are prepared to implement change, they must be aligned in their awareness of change, their understanding of change, and their positive perception of change. The alignment process used in design meetings will produce the horizontally aligned and committed sponsor team needed to achieve similar alignment in the broader organization. The academic term is design compatibility. If leaders want alignment in the broader organization then they must model alignment within the design team.
We conclude by returning to the single-mindedness of a cheeky adaptation of a campaign slogan – It’s the Process, Stupid. The best ideas to move an organization are those that a sponsor team will support together. Such ideas are an outcome of an alignment process. Alignment is a key leadership skill. Alignment is what it takes to move mountains. Alignment is what it takes to change an organization.
Source Notes: (Daryl Conner, 1992; Patty Beach, 2020)
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Dan Schmitz is a Consultant at ON THE MARK.
OTM is the leading global boutique organization design consultancy with offices in the USA and UK. With over 450 successful redesigns and operating model modernizations completed, OTM is owner of the industry’s most integrated, comprehensive and holistic organization design solution. OTM enables its clients to realize their future ambitions.