Organizational alignment is an important concept for leaders to consider. This is especially true in the current fast-paced, complex, and constantly changing working world. A Google search shows just under 27,000 books on alignment topics, including leadership, strategic, organizational, or management, so clearly, this is a topic with many facets to consider.
Need an Alignment?
Anyone who has driven a car that was out of alignment or experienced debilitating back pain can appreciate the importance of alignment. To re-align the wheels of an automobile, the basic technique requires adjustments to the angles of the wheels relative to each other and to the body of the car. The purpose of these adjustments is to improve the performance of the vehicle on the road and reduce the wear on the tires.
Body alignment works on the same principles, where the focus is on making adjustments to ensure that bones and muscles function efficiently. Think about the way your favorite athlete or performance artist’s body moves when they are in action, and you will appreciate the influence of alignment on their ability to perform. This is all common sense, but often, these are areas that we take for granted or neglect on a personal level.
This same state of neglect can be found in some organizations. Each of the non-business examples above points not only to the importance of alignment but also suggests a basic principle often absent in today’s complex organizations: maintenance. Alignment is not a “one-and-done” activity but rather something that must be maintained over time.
Labovitz and Rosansky were correct when they said in their book, The Power of Alignment: How Great Companies Stay Centered and Accomplish Extraordinary Things, “alignment can be thought of as both a noun and a verb—a state of being and a set of actions.” The actions taken within an organization are the responsibility of the leaders. Leaders help the organization achieve and sustain organizational alignment—which is easy to say but often difficult to do.
The classic work by John Kotter, Organizational Dynamics: Diagnosis and Intervention, identifies six structural areas that leaders need to concentrate on in order to ensure organizational alignment. These areas include:
- Dominant coalition
- External environment
- Social system
- Employees and other tangible assets
- Formal organizational arrangements
Each of these structural areas can be thought of as the wheels of the organizational vehicle. The image of a six-wheel-drive amphibious all-terrain vehicle is a good comparison.
Each of these six structural elements can create as many as fifteen possible areas of misalignment for the organization. The degree of the nonalignment or the number of misalignments within the organization leads to sizable inefficiencies, which can consume significant resources, be a drain on people’s energy, and take a long time to correct.
The Leadership Challenge
This way of approaching leadership may be clear to some as they consider their organizational challenges, and for others, it can seem overwhelming. The good news is there are three patterns that often lead to a misalignment within the organization. These are the areas of focus for leaders. These patterns include changes in the external environment, growing pains, and internal change.
Many organizations are struggling with changes in their external environment as a result of the economy or other regulatory or governmental changes. As these external changes occur, they can lead to misalignment within these organizations.
While the economy has been a central influence on how we think about organizational health, there are a number of industries that are growing despite the state of the economy.
In February of 2012, Forbes reported that “skilled and semi-skilled workers will be in high demand in the sciences, technology, business, computers, and healthcare” industries 2012. These growing pains can take an otherwise aligned organization and, through it, off-kilter.
Wise leaders will be aware of this potential and be ready to make adjustments.
Finally, a number of organizations are implementing internal changes in response to observed or expected inefficiencies. A word of caution: often, actions we take that are designed to correct a misalignment, which can create more problems than they solve.
We all understand that we operate in a dynamic marketplace. As nice as it would be to put the organization on autopilot, it cannot be done. Managing the alignment process is an important leadership function.
In the same way that potholes can throw off the alignment of our cars, organizational potholes can knock the organization out of alignment. Monitoring the patterns as leaders will help us identify areas of potential nonalignment early so that we can take the necessary corrective steps.
How Can Leaders Create or Sustain Organizational Alignment?
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This article by Stephen has many leadership practices to put into action. My favorite point is “Leaders help the organization achieve and sustain organizational alignment—which is easy to say, but often difficult to do.” Yes, we have to press the “hard button” on a daily basis if we are effective leaders!