At the final whistle on Monday 2 May 2016, England’s Tottenham Hotspur football club had failed to beat Chelsea. Their failure marked Leicester City’s ascension to champions of England’s Premier League. Reaching the number one spot was an extraordinary accomplishment.
“The task of leadership is to create an alignment of strengths so strong that it makes the system’s weaknesses irrelevant.”- Peter Drucker
Leicester was a 5,000-to-1 shot at the start of the season. They had just a fraction of the payroll of the financial mammoths at the top of the league.
What emerged in Leicester’s 2016 team was an alignment of strengths so effective that it transcended the relative weakness of their individual players.
This synthesis of strengths is what the most outstanding organisations achieve at their zenith.
The question is, how can we achieve this consistently?
For that dear reader, I have no prescription. Alignment is an emergent feature of any given team or organisation. The best we can shoot for as leaders is to create the constraints and conditions that might promote the formation of alignment. In this sense, we’re better thinking of alignment not as a destination, but as a process.
So what techniques, do we have at our disposal to promote alignment?
Well, of course, it helps if a leader puts something out there: a vision, a purpose, or perhaps a story of a better future. This kick starts a process of interpretation and further conversation by all of those who hear it. How people interpret and act upon this “social object” – to steal a term of from complexity thinker Ralph Stacey – will either contribute to or detract from alignment of the group.
It also helps if a leader sets some constraints: we don’t this, we don’t go there, we won’t do it this way.
So far this is familiar, for students of leadership theory, or indeed the principles of Mission Command with the military.
Finally, it helps if all of those within an organisation can see how others are interpreting an espoused goal, vision or purpose into action. It is in this regard that the techniques from the world and Lean-Agile can and do apply.
While fundamentally, conversation is a means of alignment, there are more structured conversation formats used in Agile ways of working, as outlined below.
“Working Out Loud”
We established above that alignment emerges (or not) as people interact with whatever “social objects”, directives, purposes and so on, that leaders have ‘put in the pot’. It helps if people can see others’ interpretations as they emerge; an organisation ‘seeing itself in the mirror’.
The organisation seeing itself in the mirror – collective sense making we might say – can take many forms. For instance, the perspectives comparison approach from employee alignment specialists Mirror Mirror, or the narrative-based approaches, such as that offered by Cognitive Edge’s MassSense platform.**
However, collective sense making may also take the form of ‘working out loud’, i.e. people sharing their work-in-progress, or making team task boards, plans and activity charts available to others. Such a transparent environment allows individuals or teams to judge how aligned their work is to others in the organisation. Prompting questions such as, “do I need to be doing X if they’re already doing X”?
“Lean Coffee” style meetings
The process of aligning, or misaligning, is partly a function of the quality of interactions of members of a group. How well people listen is perhaps the main factor in the quality of interactions. If I’m a leader and I’m not listening to my people, then its largely chance as to whether I provide direction that resonates with others. However, if I create spaces where others are free to speak, and I am actively listening, then I’m more likely to provide direction that is attuned to others, and that promotes alignment. One means of doing this is to ritualise our meetings to enforce turn-taking and listening, especially from the leader.
One ritualised meeting that achieves just this is the Lean Coffee format. In Lean Coffee, everyone gets to suggest agenda items and participants vote which topic gets discussed. Discussion is time-boxed with participants getting to vote on whether to continue talking about a particular topic or to move on to the next most popular item.
Leaders can use this technique as a powerful way to ensure they listen to how others are taking up their plans and objectives. In a short space of time, a leader will be exposed to a range of views from those who ordinarily may not speak up. The leader will hear the nuance of people’s agreements or objections to a particular direction.
Perhaps the most well-known aspect the Agile approach is incremental delivery. In software terms, this might mean teams releasing working software every two weeks. However, this principle can be applied to any form of knowledge work, say, organisational design, marketing strategies or people initiatives. The idea being, as soon as teams have something meaningful, they share it with potential users or consumers of that material. Frequently releasing work is another practice that can promote alignment. The longer a team waits to share their output with colleagues, the longer they wait to find out how aligned they are with others – and vice versa.
Alignment is a process and can never be fully achieved. The alignment process doesn’t provide tangible outcomes, it prepares a solid foundation for effective work that does provide those outcomes. And alignment is emergent – no best practice will enable us to achieve it – but the application of certain structures and principles can aid its emergence. In addition to focused interventions, Agile methods such as sharing work-in-progress early and often, as well as ritualised meetings that diminish hierarchy and encourage turn-taking, may also assist.
Finally, recall Leicester City, our surprise 2016 champions. They came 12th in the Premier League in the following season. I suspect whatever it was that coach Claudio Ranieri thought was needed to align his teams’ strengths in their 2015-2016 campaign was not what was needed in in 2016-2017. In fact, he was sacked mid-season.
In changing, complex environments, the alignment gaps are changing too. When attempting to align complex organisations, we should expect to be continuously mitigating against the risks of misalignment and seeking the opportunity of better alignment.
Thanks to Lindsay Uittenbogaard for help with editing this article.
This article first appeared as a guest post for Mirror Mirror here.
** Full disclosure: FirstHuman has relationships with both Mirror Mirror and Cognitive Edge.