Organization alignment blogTransformation is not a matter of intention. It is a matter of alignment.

Organizational alignment is achieved through 11 levers. You may be familiar with the so called ‘hard’ levers of strategy (focus and tactics), scorecard (metrics), structure (formal and informal), systems (HR, business and information) and skills (capabilities). However, there are also five so-called ‘soft’ levers that are critical for alignment including; standards (shared behaviours), story (communication), strengths (the organization’s existing assets), symbols (leadership time, focus and money) and sustainability (how the change effort sustains itself).

The ‘hard’ alignment levers are like the ‘bricks’ of alignment, while the ‘soft’ levers are like the ‘mortar’. The irony of the ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ labels is that the majority of leaders are very comfortable with strategy, scorecard or structure, but struggle with levers like standards, story or symbols.

The final lever, Leadership Impact, represents the foundation of the alignment approach. My research, documented in Leadership Transformed, has revealed that the impact of leaders is as important as the other ten factors combined. The alignment equation is S10 x L1, where leadership is the accelerant or handbrake on all other alignment efforts.

It is extremely rare to see any change agenda where all 11 levers are in play, and even rarer to see them applied in an integrated way. Over the coming weeks, I will unpack several of the 11 levers in more depth so that you can apply them to your change efforts.

Ducks in alignment (red)The simplest way to increase the odds of a successful change effort is to stop talking about ‘change’ itself. Change is not the goal; the goal is the goal. We are yet to encounter an organisation who aspires to destroy shareholder value, disappoint customers and alienate employees. Most organisations share aspirations which revolve around the universal principles of financial performance, customer satisfaction, employee commitment, product and service excellence, and sustainability.

When stakeholders in an organisation talk about change, what they are saying is that the organisation is not delivering on its articulated aspirations. Not only is change not the goal, but change is not even the process. The concept of ‘change’ carries significant baggage, has limited continuity, and encourages low accountability. The process by which we reach our aspirations is alignment.

Semantically, the definition of ‘alignment’ rests on the underlying concepts of adjustment, adaptation and cooperation. When a leadership team is clearly in alignment, employees in the organisation have confidence that the goals are reachable. Compared to change, alignment is a strong, positive and unemotional concept. Alignment is respectful of the past, it presumes the basic ingredients for success are already present, it allows for clear accountability, and provides a continuous reference point for improvement. In short, alignment is the business of business and the focus of effective leaders who are continually looking for levers that they can pull to reach their aspirations in a constantly changing and uncertain world.

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Trust deposit imageChange efforts in the modern context are typically messy and peppered with mistakes, problems and unmet expectations. In a high-trust environment, leaders will be given the benefit of the doubt and will be able to course correct and move forward. In a low trust environment, the mistakes and problems serve as further evidence for the dire state of the organisation and the incompetence of leaders. One simple mantra for trust is that you cannot communicate your way out of a problem you have behaved yourself into.

So if all change efforts are messy, and trust is a precondition for change, then the challenge for leaders becomes the building of trust. In my experience, trust is comprised of three key components; credibility (do I believe you can do what you or others say you can?), reliability (do you actually do what you say you will?) and intent (what is your underlying motive and how much do you stand to gain?). Leaders who consistently deliver on their promises, who behave in a way which is honest, open and authentic, and who focus on purpose, contribution and legacy, build enduring trust and dedicated followership.

At a more practical level, one of the fastest ways to build trust is to extend more trust than is warranted. Much like a bank account, this means making continual and significant deposits so that when the inevitable problems occur, the resultant withdrawals do not put the account into deficit. This approach can be humbling for many leaders; particularly those who have been raised on a diet of command and control where subordinates are expected to win their trust.

While the building of trust can seem daunting, the rewards are exponential. Stephen Covey summarises the benefits in his simple formula for the economics of trust; low trust equals low speed and high cost, high trust equals high speed and low cost. To verify this formula for yourself, compare two commercial partnerships you are engaged in; one which you would consider high trust versus one that you would categorise as low trust. Now imagine the commercial implications for your organisation if all of your relationships were like the partnership you categorised as high trust!

Trajectory imageIn the throes of uncertainty and chaos, it is natural for leaders to articulate a new agenda; envisioning a better future can serve as an immediate panacea to the pain of the present environment. Before launching off on the new crusade, however, it is critical to understand the injuries people may carry from previous crusades and whether anyone is actually interested in going back into battle.

Equally important is to understand the strengths and assets that can serve as foundations for the future organisation. Many leaders, particularly those trained in the somewhat risk-focused disciplines of accounting, law or engineering, for example, have an over-developed radar for problems, exceptions and imperfections. While this attribute can be very useful, it should be tempered with a focus on what is going well. In fact, many behavioural researchers concur that for an individual to act on one piece of corrective feedback, they must hear three pieces of positive re-enforcement. Interestingly, the ratio is as high as 1:7 in a marriage; which might explain why up to one in two now ends in divorce.

Capturing the hearts and minds of intelligent, battle weary people requires meaningful engagement in the issues and challenges affecting them; no involvement equals no commitment. As a great mentor once told me, people will tolerate the conclusions of their leaders but they will only act upon their own conclusions.

Finally, it is important to understand the ultimate aspirations of the organisation in the context of its departure point or actual state. For example, if my New Year’s aspiration is to lose 20 pounds by executing a strategy of going to the gym five times a week, and my context is that I have not been near a gym in three years, then I am likely to abandon my aspiration within the first week as I struggle to execute this radically different habit. If, on the other hand, I steadily build up to a rigorous gym routine over a period of several months, then I am far more likely to execute my strategy and reach my ultimate aspiration. The lesson for organisations desiring change is that trajectory is far more important than outcome. We must have many ways to win and few ways to fail in the early days of a change effort until our new behaviours become ingrained habits.

If you listen carefully to the language and metaphors used by most leaders to describe their journeys, you will inevitably hear talk of heroic battles and glorious missions on the path to overcoming adversity. But there is little talk of stumbling and fumbling or falling over, and the truth about change is that even the most successful efforts are far more akin to the world of Maxwell Smart than James Bond. Yet at the moment of truth, when faced with an audience of hopeful, demanding and expectant stakeholders, leaders tend to over-hype and over-commit.

My doctoral research revealed that, paradoxically, any attempt to articulate a sustainable approach to change in the modern business environment requires a blend of confidence, humility and a good sense of humour. In effect, this involves taking off the ‘mask’ of perfection in favour of a more humble and authentic disposition. De-masking however, presents a significant challenge for business leaders and change agents alike. Leaders are under constant pressure from shareholders, boards and analysts to confidently forecast and deliver results which are bigger, better and faster than last quarter.

Leaders and change agents can be liberated by dropping the mask, accepting that there is no simple program, that change is necessarily unpredictable, and that everyone will need to learn and grow through the process. This acceptance removes the weight of unrealistic expectations and enables everyone to channel the energy previously spent posturing, pretending and politicking into an authentic dialogue about the commitment and disposition required for an effort which will inevitably be harder, longer and riskier than anyone would like.

It is no coincidence that all totalitarian regimes are devoid of humour; it is very hard to oppress people who can see the funnier side of life. The human capacity to laugh at ourselves and make light of dire circumstances are critical preconditions for successful change; this capacity allows us to retain perspective, let off steam, develop resilience and bounce back from the inevitable set-backs. Humour is most potent in change efforts when deployed by leaders at their own expense. Self-effacing leaders build trust, followership and encourage authentic dialogue by exposing the human frailties that everyone in the organisation already knows they possess.

Power of uncertainty in changeIn the words of Voltaire, “doubt is not a pleasant condition but certainty is absurd”. Change requires the acceptance of turbulence, uncertainty and disorder as natural characteristics of the modern business context. In this mindset, time that was once spent developing the perfect project plan is invested in understanding the environmental context and developing the critical relationships required for sustainable change to occur. Leaders are more interested in purposeful forward movement than reporting on the plan; they do not let perfect get in the way of better, and their definition of success is to have different challenges to overcome this year than last year.

A useful metaphor to articulate the new paradigm is to compare a rowing regatta to white water rafting. The regatta is conducted upon a calm lake with an even start and an agreed finishing line. The cox sits at the stern of the boat, is the only one facing forward and barks clear and constant instructions to a team of obedient athletes who dutifully deliver their strokes until the regatta is over for another week and everyone retires to the bar.

Fast forward to the current business context and we find ourselves in a kayak with room for only two people and no one to provide close supervision. The water is a ferocious mix of power, energy and unpredictability. The noise is deafening and communication is near impossible; trust in your partner becomes a critical variable. There are dangerous obstacles everywhere and one false move could mean disaster. Making it to the end is only a temporary reprieve because the current soon propels you to the next set of rapids which are waiting around the corner.
When we accept the loss of control and certainty incumbent in the old paradigm, we open ourselves up to the exhilaration and possibilities of the contemporary business context. After all, it is from uncertainty and the unknown that innovation emerges. At the very least, we develop a realistic set of assumptions and beliefs with which to better lead in the new context.

Barack Obama ChangeIn the 2008 US Presidential campaign between Barack Obama and John McCain, Obama claimed to be “the change we need” while McCain claimed to be a “maverick reformer”. The fact that both candidates on the world’s largest stage ran on a ‘change platform’ is symbolic of how much the concept of ‘change’ is a part of our contemporary lexicon. More recently, the claiming of a change platform by political leaders has spread across the Middle East, North and East Africa; as a desperate attempt to hang on to the last threads of power, or in attempt to replace incumbent regimes. But is change what the people of these nations really want?

Semantically, the definition of ‘change’ rests on the underlying concept of ‘different’; the implication being that we want something different to what we have currently. But different is a weak and unstable word, it lacks strength, a sense of destination, and personal accountability; it is too easy for people to say “something needs to change!” It also lacks any sense of continuity; people will rightfully want to know “what happens after we change?”

It is our contention that Americans do not want change as much as they want to realise the American dream and live their unalienable rights of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” as espoused in the Declaration of Independence. Similarly, we contend that the stakeholders of our organisations do not want change either, but rather the realisation of the statements of mission, vision and values that appear prominently in corporate boardrooms and on company websites right around the globe.

To achieve our aspirations in the modern organisational context, we must move on from the concepts of ‘change management’ and ‘change programs’ which carry the emotional baggage of a 70% failure rate. In fact, the terms ‘change’ and ‘failure’ have become almost synonymous in many organisations. When a leader talks about ‘change’, or even worse a ‘change program’, what people typically hear is pain, loss, extra effort, increased risk and greater uncertainty. Change is not the goal. The goal is the goal.

Solid Foundation for ChangeLeaders often incorrectly assume a neutral starting point for change efforts. We assume that because our intentions are good, people will naturally trust and follow us. Change efforts never take place in a vacuum; there is always an environmental, organisational and personal context to be considered. After endless restructuring, reengineering, downsizing, and mergers and acquisitions; many people are scarred, tired, cynical, and focused on self-protection. Enthusiastically pitching another ‘compelling vision’ to this audience, no matter how well intentioned, is likely to be met with the cynicism it deserves.

Much has been written on the competencies required to lead and manage change; the underlying assumption being that there is a magic formula of technical skills that guarantee success. At its core, however, leading change is more like ten percent technical competence and ninety percent emotional intelligence. Put even more simply, the precondition for change is trust. For people to embark upon a journey from a known state, no matter how bad, to a largely unknown state, they must have a deep trust in those leading the change.

A key challenge with building trust is that we judge ourselves by our intentions and everyone else by their actions; as a result leaders often assume good will that is not there. In addition, today’s leaders are under so much pressure to produce short term results that they rarely take the time to create a solid foundation for success. Yet without such a foundation, our change efforts are effectively built upon quicksand.

puzzle pieceImagine trying to build a jigsaw puzzle which has no lid and is missing half of the pieces. This metaphor highlights two key challenges facing leaders trying to piece together the jigsaw puzzle of change in the twenty-first century. Firstly, change failure statistics suggest that many of our leaders have not experienced successful change in the last decade. As a result, they do not have a ‘lid’ or are using a ‘lid’ that no longer serves them.

Secondly, our backgrounds, education, preferences and beliefs often determine which pieces of the puzzle we pick-up, or even notice. Stereotypically, the CFO may focus disproportionately on the metrics for change, while the Head of Business Development creates the perfect strategy, and the HR Director concentrates on developing the workforce capability required for change.

Our subjectivity, in itself, is not the problem; we all interpret the world through our unique lenses. The bigger issue is that we assume we are objective while we act subjectively. There are now biologists who claim that 80% of the information we notice in the external environment comes from information already in our brain. Consequently, change efforts often fail or are rendered unsustainable because crucial pieces of information and intricate interrelationships are overlooked or ignored by leaders who are blinkered by the human condition.

A third challenge of objectivity is the misalignment between leadership intention and behavior. At an executive leadership summit, I asked the 500 delegates to close their eyes and raise their hands if they considered themselves to be of high integrity. When the delegates opened their eyes, every hand in the room was in the air. We then asked them to close their eyes again and raise their hands if they agreed that their colleagues shared their same high level of integrity. When they opened their eyes this time, only a third of the hands were raised. The insight reached by the delegates from this simple exercise was that objectivity is impossible since we judge ourselves by our intention, while we judge everybody else by their actions.

Cascade StoryLast week I discussed the principles for communicating your story. In collaboration with Mark Fuda at Seven Stories, we have determined a number of principles to define, cascade and embed that story in your organisation.

To effectively define an engaging story, ensure you:

  • Have anyone who needs to approve it, in the room from the start.
  • Create context with a compelling backstory.
  • Have an inciting incident.
  • Articulate what has changed, and what’s at risk.
  • Express an aspiration; a desired goal that will not be easily achieved.
  • Outline the plan to achieve the goal; what we need to do.
  • Are clear on the challenges that will be faced in pursuit of the goal.
  • Articulate how it will feel when the goal is achieved.
  • Create a vehicle to deliver the story that captures their attention.

To effectively cascade the story, ensure you:

  • Align individual leader stories to the organisation’s story.
  • Keep the story current and relevant over time.
  • Tailor the story to key audiences.
  • Develop visual support material to reinforce the story.
  • Can answer the question “what does this mean for me?”
  • Roll it out with impact.

To effectively embed the story, ensure you:

  • Align all communication channels to the story.
  • Build leaders story telling capability by training them in the art and science of storytelling.
  • Create and share stories of success.
  • Utilise images and symbols that reinforce the story.
  • Regularly review and update the story to keep it current and relevant.