The illusion of alignment

In an attempt to identify what our primary added value is as a business, I interviewed several current and former clients with a simple question: what is the most value you got from working with us? There was a recurring theme in most answers: greater executive alignment.

As I drilled into the conversations to extract more insights, the pattern became increasingly clearer: misalignment within executive teams is one of the principal head-aches for the CEO as well as the primary cause of derailment of large programs of work. My personal experience in working with clients on large strategic initiatives certainly validates this.

Recently, I was working with a program director in the banking industry leading a $15 million companywide core system replacement. She could sense that the proclaimed alignment among the executive team was in reality very shallow just from observing some weak signals in steering committees or public interventions. She knew this was putting the program at risk. Although her main business sponsors did not see the need, we convinced them to organise a 1-day workshop to verify and consolidate alignment on the vision for the business and on how the program contributes to this vision. Inevitably, as soon as we scratched beneath the surface, we uncovered nuances and divergences that could have cost millions in delays and overspend if they had been uncovered later, during delivery. There are some good lessons to take away from this experience:

  • We often get an illusion of alignment as a result of the superficial level of dialogue in the boardroom that seldom allows to uncover nuances and underlying drivers. Do not take alignment for granted.
  • It is much easier (and safer) to uncover, acknowledge and address alignment issues in a controlled environment, before they create tension and impact execution.
  • The upfront time investment in executive alignment largely pays off through the increase of operational effectiveness and speed of decision making.

Things however do not always go as smoothly and it is easy to underestimate the effort to drive alignment.

Earlier this year, I was working with a CEO in the education industry who had an ambitious innovation agenda. He placed a lot of emphasis on board alignment and organised two off sites with the Board and the executive team. The objective was to specifically explore and agree a level of ambition and investment, a high-level strategic pathway and the appointment of a dedicated Executive. Just months into the implementation of the innovation strategy, the alignment within the executive team started cracking as a result of operational challenges in other parts of the business and within weeks, it created doubt at board level. The palpable misalignment at the top level was enough to derail the momentum that was picking up at operational level and delayed, if not jeopardised, the medium to long term benefits expected from the new strategy. There are two things we underestimated there:

  • The need for deep alignment between Executives, even on aspects of the strategy that only one of them had an explicit mandate to execute on.
  • The fragility of board alignment. It not only had to be created but also nurtured and maintained over time through repeated exposure to the underlying rationale for a bold strategy.

Strategic alignment is now always a central consideration when I undertake a significant engagement with a client and I have extracted some consistent insights over time:

  • Executives themselves are too caught up in their own system to adequately assess their own level of alignment. Sometimes, their teams are more aware of Executives’ misalignment than they are themselves.
  • A minor divergence at executive level can generate significant inefficiencies down the line at operational level. Buckminster Fuller refers to this concept as the “trim tab effect”.
  • The cost of misalignment is evident once crisis hits. Unfortunately, until it does, Executives tend to underestimate it and as a result under-invest upfront to mitigate the risk.
Relativity — MC Escher

Whether my mandate is specifically to drive strategic alignment or whether it is an enabler to a broader transformation, I never lose sight of these considerations and I always look for weak signals that would evidence a risk.

Meaningful alignment takes time to achieve and requires regular reinforcement. In my opinion, it can only be achieved through a deliberate and carefully designed effort to create the right context and have the right conversations. This requires enough distance from the context and a level of neutrality that can only be achieved with an external intervention.

I would love to hear your stories or reflections on the topic. Just to check if we’re aligned ;o)

At wheretofromhere?, we developed a framework for systemic transformation — parkour — that puts strategic alignment forward as one of 6 key levers to create the scaffolding of a change initiative.