It all starts with strategic alignment. Everyone on the same page, knowing where they’re headed, and clear about the end goals (even if the detail of the individual steps to get there is still a bit, shall we say, murky). How many times have you thought that everyone was heading in the same direction, only to find out at some point down the line that people had a different view of what success looked like, or disagreed on the fundamental assumptions that were driving the change? Yup, us too. Too many times.
But just how do you get strategic alignment? It’s one of those great mini-phrases, beloved of strategy consultants, that means so much and yet is pretty difficult to achieve. Like senior leadership buy-in. And while we’re at it, executive sponsorship of change.
We’ve thought about strategic alignment quite a bit, largely because without it, it’s often not worth continuing with the planned change as it will most likely go wrong. So we thought we’d share some of our observations about alignment.
The first thing to ask is who’s aligning and to what? We have worked with organisations who have aligned their change plan to the strategic analysis of the marketplace only to find that the assumptions which underlay their reading of the market were flawed. That was not pretty to watch as the ensuing car crash took place over three years. So, eventhough some may argue that it’s out of scope of the change management project, it’s the responsibility of the change leader to take the business case for change apart and examine every bit of assumption and strategic goal to make sure that they’re sound. If any part of the business case does not stack up – either at the beginning or as the project continues because perhaps the external environment might have changed – it’s within the leader’s remit to raise a flag and shout ‘pause’ until the foundation pieces of the change proposition are worked through.
So, let’s assume that the business case is built on solid foundations and that the vision is the right one for this organisation, at this time in the economic cycle, and at this point in the organisation’s growth and development. (Please note the range of variables in that last sentence: what’s appropriate for an organisation changes with context, time and growth).
The next step is to make sure that there’s a clear vision that brings alive the business case. Without it, it’s difficult for people (and yes, we’re coming on to which people) to understand what’s required of the organisation, and of them. A lot has been written about creating a company vision and we don’t intend to repeat much here. It’s enough to say that the vision needs to be aligned with the organisation’s values (there’s that word ‘aligned’ again) and be proportionate to the resources the organisation has available. Companies that try to expand business into areas which don’t match their competencies and values are doomed from the start. Unless that is, they have hired people with experience in those proposed new business areas and who are able to build process, people and culture bridges with the core business.
How do you know whether the vision is aligned with the company’s values and competencies? The answer here is under our noses and it’s foolproof: ask the people. In our experience, 80% of people are excellent judges about whether the re-vision for an organisation is appropriate. (Typically 10% of people will agree with you no matter what you’re doing, and a further 10% will disagree with you whatever you’re doing. Try to avoid these groups for consultation if you can). But that 80% of people who work day to day with customers, suppliers and each other intuitively know whether the vision is a good fit with what the organisation is good at, and with the values that it stands for. If people are silent in their opinion, you’ve nailed it. Because if the alignment with organisational competencies or values is low or tenuous, you’ll hear the negative chatter at every water cooler around. (Of course, we would recommend doing more than hanging around water coolers after big announcements to hear any chatter. After all, we’re in the business of being able to ask employees what they think in more time efficient, neat and nimble ways, but that’s for another day).
If the vision is right and has gone through the water cooler test – or our more sophisticated software test – then it needs a bit of work. How compelling is the vision? Does it need some wordsmithing to make it jump from the page and really speak to people including customers and suppliers, as well as employees, shareholders and the board? We have written elsewhere on how to write a vision statement so we won’t cover it here. But the acid test of its success is whether it means the same thing to everyone. And that’s alignment.
But perhaps the most important alignment of all is that of the senior leaders with the big top dog leader. Can they all ad lib the vision so that they describe it in the same but using their own words? How able are they to pick examples from their own part of the business and use them as illustrations of what the organisation is trying to achieve? How committed are they to the vision and the goals behind closed doors when the ‘broadcast’ mode to employees is off and they are with their own team? We know that it’s what leaders do that people follow and not what they say. Leaders need to make sure that they are making decisions, allocating resources, hiring people and rewarding/recognising great performance in a way that’s aligned to the vision. The individual steps to reach the vision may be blurred (for quite some time) but leaders have a key role in translating the vision into their divisional goals and activities. And that will show everyone else what alignment looks like.