If we agree that nothing in the world moves without energy, and that aligned energies will reach a goal faster than unaligned energies, then the practice of aligning people and the energies they bring to the workplace is indeed a critical leadership practice. Literally, we can consider alignment as ‘the placement of everyone (person or group) on the same line,’ so that we can move together. It is not a coincidence that we combine aligning and mobilizing as one leadership practice – we cannot move in the same direction when we are not aligned. Let’s take a closer look at alignment.
First there is alignment within oneself. We have to ask ourselves this question: is our behavior aligned with our principles and beliefs? Do we ‘walk our talk?’ To be a credible and effective leader, we must be able answers these questions positively. This is true even if we think are one already by virtue of our place in the organization’s hierarchy, our white hair, our years of experience, our academic titles or our stripes on our uniforms. When we are not aligned within ourselves the best we can do is to use carrots and sticks to get others to comply with our requests and move in the direction we choose.
Second, there is alignment in a team: Peter Senge, in his classic “the Fifth Discipline” considers Team Learning one of the five (5) disciplines. He uses a graphic to illustrate an unaligned team: one big arrow pointing in the direction of the team’s goal or mandate and then, within the arrow smaller arrows that point in different directions. The smaller arrows are the people inside a team. Have you ever felt like this in a team you worked in, when individual energies didn’t add up to allow for forward motion, leaving everyone with a sense of ‘stuckness?’ If you were able to get your team out of this place, then you probably were able to align individuals around a shared mission and a shared vision (or common goal if you wish).
A shared mission (why are we here?) and a shared vision (what are we collectively trying to bring into being?) serve as a magnet. If we imagine the individual arrows going in different directions, and if we imagine them having a metal point, then a magnet would get them all to point in the same direction. That is what a shared mission and vision do.
Third there is alignment at a higher and more complex level: alignment of divisions or departments or units in a larger whole, like an entire ministry or a sector. The chances that the individual arrows (now referring to organizations or units) are pursuing different agendas is more likely at this level. Have you ever worked in a system (a group of interacting, interrelated, or interdependent elements forming a complex whole) where different units or departments pursued goals that were at odds with one another? If you were lucky enough to work in a system where such energies were aligned, it was probably because the leadership inspired each part of the system around a common mission and share a common vision.
Fourth, there is alignment at an even higher level, among various actors in a very large and dispersed organization or a geographical entity (a village, city, district, region, country, etc.). The higher the level at which we work, the harder we have to work towards alignment. Here too, a shared mission and a shared vision are critical. If you don’t have that, everyone will fight over the ‘how’ – each pursuing a ‘how’ that serves their interests best. When we align various stakeholders, we try to find something that everyone wants to bring into being before we try to find out what is in the way in order to develop strategies to overcome these obstacles that everyone can own.
- Alignment is about emotions, feeling connected to a larger whole, a purpose to speak to the individual or group’s aspirations. Create a structure for people to talk about these aspirations so that they can connect to each other. This also builds trust – trust in knowing that we are all working towards a common goal.
- Conducting team building exercises must create space for the serious conversations about team members’ aspirations and how they see themselves contributing to a common goal. By all means, add a bit of laughter and fun, but remember that it is the important conversations that will create the kind of alignment that will last after the team building exercises are over.
- In developing mission and vision statements it is important to invite team members to participate in this process. This action builds ownership which, in turn, creates commitment to them. If this process is completed without engaging team members they may be viewed more like commands and may have little effect as they are not be owned and they are simply agreeing with something you and/or someone else has proposed. Note that buy-in is not the same as ownership. Buy-in may be enthusiastic, but it is not as compelling as having had a role in the creation.
See for yourself
Invitation to collaborate
We welcome your thoughts about alignment. Please use the comment form below to share your experiences, successes, and lessons learned with regards to aligning.
Stay tuned! We will be blogging here on all the other letters of the alphabet for Managers Who Lead in the weeks and months to come.