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What is strategic alignment, and why does it matter?

“Building a visionary company requires 1% vision and 99% alignment.”

- Jim Collins & Jerry Porras

I love this image of the rowers.

The leader who looks forward and directs without doing any of the actual work.

And the crew puts in 100% effort in harmony. Trusting, disciplined, persistent, drilled, committed. Lovely.

But we all know organisations just don’t work like that.

People talk about:

  • “just do it”
  • ”the most important thing is to do something”
  • "analysis leads to paralysis".

But the real problem is getting everyone to ‘just do’ the same thing.

As a starting alignment requires clarity as to what everyone is aligning too. And that thing ought to be your business strategy!

Effort diffuses quickly

I once worked with an organisation that had only 130 employees but was running 100 projects! Everyone was very busy. Their days were filled with progress updates and prioritisation workshops. But nothing ever seemed to get done.

Alignment is about what you do, who does it, when you do it and how you do it.

And, as is usually the case with business strategy, it is also about what shouldn't get done and how much of what kind of involvement different people should and shouldn't have.

Alignment requires focus. Clarity about what's in and what's not.

People will fill in the blanks

A lot of strategies fail because it is just not clear to people what they should actually do to support it. 

They’re just vaguely worded statements of ambition.

And when that happens, habit takes over. And people inevitably go back to doing whatever it was they were doing before the new strategy was launched. Because that feels comfortable.

Or worse still, they just invent their own strategies.

Alignment requires a clear call to action.

Discipline

Sometimes alignment fails because the strategy is at fault. But other times it fails because people just won’t align.

I remember a senior manager getting very excited as he told me about a great new idea he had and how he was mobilising his team around prioritising it.

But, I pointed out, this idea did not relate in any way to the 4 strategic priorities which his board had had agreed with the organisation only the month before. And in fact, when I asked him, he admitted he’d been so busy with this shiny new initiative that he had barely had time to think about those 4 strategic priorities, let alone do anything about them.

Was he too scared to implement the agreed strategy in case he failed? Did he lack the required balance between thought and action? Or was he just too easily distracted?

Either way, he lacked the discipline - the follow-through - required to execute the strategy.

Another senior manager in similar situation told me outright that she didn’t care that her plan didn’t align with the organisation’s strategy; it’s what she want to do for her career.

What’s more she didn’t think that the executive team were committed enough to their own strategy to do anything to stop her from just pushing ahead. And it turned out, in that case, that she was absolutely right.

Start with a solid foundation

One of the best ways to increase alignment is to base your strategy on a solid evidence base. (See Everyone is entitled to an opinion, but...)

The more you rely on opinions, instead of on evidence, the more you have to accept that everyone has a different opinion, and the less likely it is that you’ll ever get them into alignment.

It’s amazing how much more constructive conversations become when you stop talking about who’s right and who's wrong, and start talking about what evidence you have and what it means.

So, as business strategists, we should constantly ask: How will you align all of your people and resources to the achievement of your goals?

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