‘We are totally aligned', said the leader in a confident tone. The rest of the digital transformation team stayed silent or nodded in agreement. This mix of confidence and silence was a red flag for the coach, or at least an invitation to be curious.
For the leadership team to be ‘totally aligned' during such change and uncertainty was ‘too good to be true', reflected the pitstop coach. ‘Moreover, it was far from the Norm, he added.
‘Many leaders find it difficult to accept that their organizations, projects or teams may not be fully aligned,' he continued. ‘It is as if anything less than 100% alignment is an admission of failure or a dereliction of duty. However, for most organizations, 100% alignment is an illusion. It is wishful thinking,' the coach exclaims.
We call it the ‘Illusion of Alignment ‘, the number one blind spot for many leaders. Naturally, leaders want to believe that the strategy is clear and everybody is on board. However, it is easy for leaders to be lured into a false sense of organizational or team alignment. Most people nod in agreement rather than say what they think.
The last sentence sounds like a sweeping generalization, but a decade of research into psychological safety leaves little doubt that this is true. Interestingly, while engagement (or, to be more precise, a crisis of engagement) stole the headlines in the post-pandemic environment, nobody was talking about the broader issue of alignment. That is engagement with strategic clarity.
The Illusion of Alignment
When the data comes in, alignment is typically between 63% and 78%. For this ‘totally aligned' team, the result was 71% alignment. That is a 29% misalignment regarding the strategy for digital transformation. In particular, stakeholders had widely varying definitions of success for the digital strategy.
Clarity & alignment on priorities, purpose and results (the triple lock on alignment) ranged from 62% to 78%.
The message is: If you believe your organization is completely aligned, think again. To assume alignment is dangerous. But it is a mistake that many leaders make. The assumption of alignment is widespread. That blinds leaders to one of the key opportunities and challenges facing any critical project or initiative.
Alignment is not the Norm
Leaders should be able to admit to less than total alignment. Alignment is not the Norm nor the default within organizations or teams. Moreover, perfect alignment may be challenging.
The only way for an organization to be perfectly aligned is to stand still, but in a fast-changing marketplace, that is not possible. In a complex, fast-changing environment, alignment isn't constant but rather dynamic.
Total alignment is an artefact of a different age – when the change was slow and predictable and where strategy was set at the top and dictated downward.
Total alignment is a casualty of accelerating change and uncertainty. It is one of the things that gets lost in the shift from hierarchy to a matrix or cross-functional network of teams.
Alignment – the New 100%
Like every other aspect of leadership, alignment is situational. It differs from a time of little change to a time of uncertainty. Indeed, 80% alignment in a time of change and complexity is the equivalent of over 100% alignment at any other time.
‘To achieve 100% alignment in a complex dynamic environment is simply impossible' says another of our coaches. ‘Even if possible, it could be dangerous' she adds. ‘The only type of alignment that works is dynamic alignment'.
Alignment Meets Complexity
What is required is a very modern type of alignment – a fluid alignment where people and resources can flow to where they are needed most. That is something that the annual budgeting and multi-year strategy cycle often struggle with.
‘They say if it is easy, then it isn't strategy ‘, says one of our coaches. ‘Well, the same applies to alignment', he adds. ‘If alignment is easy – the difficult decisions are probably not being made, and the difficult conversations are not being had'.
Business Unusual Alignment
Ambitious organizations will inevitably wrestle with alignment, as there will always be more priorities and projects than resources. When the need for performance meets the demand for transformation, alignment comes under pressure.
When business as usual meets business unusual, alignment will be stretched. Moreover, greater speed, agility, collaboration and innovation are required.
On Being Aligned
Those that are aligned work at it continuously. Moreover, it is not always easy. There are lots of difficult decisions and difficult conversations required. Perfect alignment is transitory and fleeting. It is hard, won't, and easily lost.
In this agile world, continuously questioning alignment is the leader's job. To encourage others to test and challenge alignment is a leader's job, too. As one of our more experienced coaches says: ‘If everything seems fine, then you're probably not moving fast enough'.
Perfect alignment is an illusion. But an understandable illusion in organizations where people don't speak up. Naturally, leaders will believe they are aligned if people don't speak up to say otherwise. However, as a decade of research on psychological safety tells us, they don't speak up because it is not safe.
This insight emerged from strategic conversations with business leaders on the requirements of delivering today's performance & tomorrow's transformation. It is part of our most exciting research yet: