Prospero Consulting Group

The Alignment Perspective: Key to Effective Leadership and Management

by Jeff Muscatine, Founder & Principal of Prospero Consulting Group

A management perspective that is fundamental, but very often misunderstood or neglected, is “alignment.” The challenge that many business leaders face today is usually not to refine a traditional operation, more often it is to comprehend a host of dynamic issues and focus the organization on knowing and doing what is truly critical to strategic success. Survival, let alone prosperity, may hang in the balance. We all know the appropriate chant: “Focus, focus, focus.” Yet, in so many organizations, competent, ambitious, hard-working people do not have the most productive balance of priorities, resources, cross-functional collaboration, or return on their efforts. What’s the problem? It is likely misalignment, which we will explore.

It is fair to say that the vast majority of executives and employees want to succeed and are already working hard. Recent research results (note 1) validate that most managers are likely to be doing an astonishing number of fast-moving, “important” tasks, too many of which are circular in nature, and also perceive that they can spare little of their precious time for reflection. Most of us would agree with the proverb that says “Often he who does too much does too little,” but in practice we are just too busy with “real-world” struggles to indulge in philosophy. Yet a real-world consequence that follows is that among companies that do have a formal strategic plan, implementation fails at a 90 percent rate, 70 percent due to bad execution (note 2). If these failure rates seem too dismal to be true, think back over your career and the organizational initiatives you have seen come and go. How many were clear, well-executed, and measurably valuable? How many were off the mark, poorly implemented, or just disappeared after a while? In each case, what about the process was learned and formally applied to improvements, from both successes and failures?

From a leadership perspective, good alignment means that strategic direction is clearly mapped and that all of the people in the organization see logical links between that strategy and their roles and priorities, both vertically and cross-functionally. Operationally, alignment means that the organization’s business processes are designed and executed to effectively and efficiently deliver value to the customer. Take a break from churning and have a clear-eyed look at your company:

• Are all objectives clearly mapped to strategies, supporting value propositions? Is strategic direction logically reflected in setting tactical implementation objectives and performance management? Does everyone understand and embrace this? How do you define and track these issues?

• Does a distinct value proposition (service, quality, price) clearly drive what and how you deliver to the given customer? Are business process changes manageable? How do you define and track these issues?

• Is there management consensus on the most meaningful leading (not just lagging) indicators of performance, and the relative strategic value of all activities? Does the employee population perceive (in their view, not yours) a unified, trustworthy leadership team? How do you define and track these issues?

• Does change cascade effectively through the organization? Is the culture an asset or part of the problem? Do we systemically motivate appropriate initiatives or discourage them? How do you define and track these issues?

• Are high-level people too busy for strategic reflection, critical focus and growth? Is there a strategic learning agenda? How do you define and track these issues?

Since we all work in an imperfect world, most leaders will likely have to say “No” in some of these areas above, and some honest responses will boil down to “I don’t know.” So the next questions are: what should you know that you don’t, what can you live with for now, what would it be helpful to improve, and what could be killing your really critical initiatives?

There is no simple set of answers here, and if someone proposes a formula or “proprietary methodology” that fits every situation ... well, be afraid. The issues, critical program paths and leadership team backgrounds vary considerably between and often within companies. When you want help tackling alignment issues, you need a consultant able to understand your business from top to bottom, as well as your leadership situation, knowledge base, and style, and to work as a team member to develop a close-fitting framework for the focus, alignment, and management of the enterprise.

A senior Japanese executive, a veteran of global, cross-cultural operations, once quoted this proverb to me, “If your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” Once the situational analysis and program objectives are defined, the right tools are essential. Then we can choose an approach, or design a combination of several conceptual models and processes that may be powerful and productive to link logically together. The following are some examples of potential high-ROI programs that we often use to improve alignment by design, action, and retained learning.

• Strategic focus, strategy mapping and alignment of objectives

• Balanced Scorecard

• Process improvement and management

• Change management

• Internal communication

• Leadership development

• Mentoring programs

• Customer relationship management

• Internal and external assessments

• Learning and knowledge management

Good management is an artfully woven set of processes and behaviors, not a series of events. At times the task set can be tough to accomplish solely with internal resources and perspectives. This is when the right management consulting services can be an excellent resource for executives and groups that need more success from their strategies, resources, processes, and culture. Like any other business initiative, even the best-designed alignment program is only as good as the execution. Savvy consultants work with clients to make the value of the process – the relationship itself – the priority. The work product rings truer and delivers greater outcome value when the program is built on what the consultant and management team work together to learn, synthesize and communicate. Administrative simplicity, work continuity, and the trust built in the relationship allow the maximum time and resources to be spent on the real issues, and on the critical challenge of engaging the full team in the program. The client accrues a great deal of added value through the process because alignment is by definition a perspective across the organization, so in the overall alignment program we can exploit connections across projects and continue to build leverageable knowledge.

1. Heike Baruch and Sumantra Ghoshal, “Beware the Busy Manager, Harvard Business Review, February 2002
2. Ram Charan and Geoffrey Colvin, “Why CEOs Fail,” Fortune, 21 June 1999