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The Importance of Alignment to Strategy and Culture

Jennifer Mulholland & Jeff Shuck
June 27, 2023
Over the last few weeks, we've been writing about the summer solstice and specifically about how the solstice can be an inspiration and a metaphor for alignment.  As we head into July, we wanted to talk about the concept of alignment more generally and consider what it means for your team and your organization.
If you've read even a few of our posts or listened to more than one of our podcast episodes, you've no doubt heard us use the word "alignment" before. In fact, it may seem that we're obsessed with the concept! In a few places on our website, we go as far as to assert that " strategies don’t fail because teams lack innovation, market intelligence, humility, or capital. On the contrary, most groups that come to us have intelligent people, good products, and rich resources. The biggest reason strategies fail is a lack of alignment."
So what is alignment, and why does it matter?


The Strategy Everyone Accepted, But No One Agreed To

A few years ago, we were conducting Meridian, our strategy retreat, with a nonprofit in the healthcare space. The organization was growing rapidly. For the first time in a decade, it was on the threshold of having eight digits of revenue in one year. In other words, it wasn't a small organization anymore.

The nonprofit was still led by its founder, a person with a lot of drive and passion. She had built the organization from literally nothing on the back of a personal tragedy and had invested much of herself in its growth.

When she came to us, she was frustrated with her team and ready to fire her two top vice presidents – arguably, the two people besides her most responsible for the organization's success. Needless to say, we advised restraint. 

"What's the problem?" We asked.

"These two seem to have stopped working for me," the founder complained to us. "We all agree to the same strategy, but then nothing gets done."

We asked her to start the Meridian retreat by leading her team in an interactive discussion about the organization's current strategy. We watched with fascination – and a bit of horror! – as she spoke for nearly an hour, reading from slides at a breakneck pace.

In the end, she paused for a moment and asked her team, "That's our strategy. Does anyone disagree with it?" 

No one in the room moved a muscle.

We could see from the looks on everyone's faces that not one person felt comfortable making a sound. 

The Pain of Misalignment

If you have ever slipped vertebrae in your back, you know the pain of misalignment. When even one tiny part of your spine is out of whack, it can be hard to walk, painful to sit down, and impossible to get comfortable. It’s jarring how an injury affecting such a small part of your body can cause your entire life to grind to a halt. 
Now imagine going to see a doctor about your back pain and hearing the doctor say, "I haven't looked at your x-ray, but I think your spine is fine." Y ou probably wouldn't feel any better, right? In fact, you'd probably be understandably upset that your point of view wasn't solicited in any way. 
It's a silly analogy, but amazingly, that is how strategy is set in many organizations. A few people go into a room for a couple of days, build a long slide deck, and then present it to everyone else. Most of the time, the views of the people who actually work with customers, suppliers, donors, consumers, and stakeholders aren't meaningfully solicited in any way.
And so, small – and sometimes large – misalignments happen. It's easier to go along with what is written on the slide deck than to try to correct it, and in any case, most of the time there's no real way for the corrections to be voiced, debated, and registered anyway.
And so, just like a small vertebra in your back can keep you from standing up straight, a n issue that appears minor or unnoticeable may lead an entire project or entire company off-track. 

More Than Agreement

Alignment is sometimes used as a fancy synonym for "agreement," and agreement is definitely part of alignment. But the idea of alignment goes beyond "we all agree." Alignment denotes that the pieces of the whole are arranged appropriately to one another. In other words, alignment carries the implication that all the pieces matter and that each piece has the opportunity to play its appropriate role.
For teams to agree, they must decide that a particular course of action is best. When agreement is the goal, we often see lobbying, voting, cajoling, and convincing on the part of the team members. We see the kind of leadership behavior we saw in the story of the nonprofit founder – a sort of fake, forced participation in which everyone in the organization is asked for their input but has already been told to go along with the executives' answer. 
But for teams to align, they need to understand all the perspectives at play and work to find the optimal solution for all of them. Alignment involves a lot of listening. It involves understanding other points of view. There's no campaigning – instead, there's careful consideration. A majority vote can be used to decide how a team will agree. But only collaborative consensus can create alignment. 

Fostering Alignment Creates Organizational Culture

It's not enough to share your passion and effectively manage everyone else's effort. It's not enough to put your two alternatives to a vote. It's not enough to tell everyone what to do or to ask people to give it their all. None of that will create the alignment you want around your strategy.
Instead, everyone has to see themselves in the plan as a team. Everyone must agree to work from the same playbook with a shared intention.
Conscious leaders in conscious organizations understand that culture matters immensely. Silos, backroom conversations, hidden agendas, and dysfunctional culture are always more pressing threats to success than competitive pressures or market dynamics.
Great conscious leaders work to create conscious, aligned strategies by using a few simple tools:
  • Slow down. Create open space for discussion.
  • Go to the source. Trust your direct reports, yes, but include team members from all levels of the organization. Remember that the people closest to any issue usually have the best insight as to how to solve it. 
  • Ask questions. The simplest way to create a collaborative, aligned culture is to ask your team a lot of questions. What's working? What isn't? How can we improve? What can we do better? When no one is fired for giving input, you'll find you have good ideas at every turn. 
  • Speak last. As the leader, of course your viewpoint is important. But realize that your role predisposes people to agree with you. If you share your opinion first, you'll have a hard time getting the other opinions out on the table. Offer your opinion last.
Conscious leaders align their lives with their deepest calling and help others do the same. It's not difficult – but it requires patience and practice. 
If you'd like help practicing yourself, or support in creating the space and time for your team to align around what really matters, we'd love to help
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