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Working the Future blog: our latest insights and future of work sensemaking

ALIGNMENT – THE NEW LEADERSHIP IMPERATIVE

2021-08-27 13:16

Lindsay Uittenbogaard

Blog, 21st CENTURY LEADERSHIP, FUTURE OF WORK CONSULTING, LEADERSHIP RESILIENCE, STRATEGY,

ALIGNMENT – THE NEW LEADERSHIP IMPERATIVE

As ambiguity continues to blight our commercial landscapes, alignment has never been more important. But what is it and why is it so critical to business?

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This month, we’re delighted to welcome our special guest writer, Lindsay Uittenbogaard, CEO of Mirror Mirror, specialists in data-driven alignment solutions for teams, including executive leadership teams and boards.

 

As ambiguity continues to blight our commercial landscapes, alignment has never been more important. But what is it and why is it so critical to business productivity and performance?

 

Because every one of us is unique, we each naturally hold a different view of the world, shaped by our own specific background and experience. Alignment in business is the means by which we successfully identify the differences of those mental models. When we understand the alignment gaps, we can build shared understanding for enhanced commercial results. Mirror Mirror offers a brilliant explainer here.

 

We asked Lindsay and some of her network members to share their thoughts about why alignment is just so key for business leaders in the hybrid working age. Here’s what they told us.

 

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Although leaders and senior executives are typically responsible for organisational strategy, alignment doesn’t seem to get any easier at the top.

 

Studies show that alignment isn’t simply about having a shared understanding of the goals, the plan and the progress. It’s equally about learning how people interact to make effective decisions and take effective action. And remembering that the way people understand the strategy and how it relates to the business morphs over time to fit their biases and preferences. Regrettably, misalignment is commonplace, and it undermines effective action, morale and results.

 

According to the Project Management Institute, 11% of project spend is lost due to misalignment. And poorly aligned companies have 50% lower returns on invested capital and 18% overall in EBITDA, according to McKinsey.

 

But what makes alignment so difficult? We gained insight from five associate executive and leadership coaches to better understand the challenge. They reported:

 

1.     Leaders don’t always recognise alignment as an issue

While advanced alignment approaches are now available, many leaders don’t see their performance problems in terms of misalignment because it is so customary to attribute issues to single, coherent causes, like technology, regulation, or engagement.

 

2.     The stakes are higher

Senior leaders are less likely to have conversations that lead to better alignment because there’s so much more at stake compared to general workplace discussions. Their sense of exposure is heightened, and the pressure to avoid blame is ever-present. They’ve more awareness of bigger picture issues but there’s no one else to escalate these issues to. This amplifies anxiety, reducing trust and openness, the ability to ask simple questions and deal with ‘undiscussables’ in a constructive way. They’ll often adopt a safer strategy to observe and try to ‘pick things up’ on the way. By avoiding critical, crunchy conversations, key alignment gaps are left open.

 

3.     Leaders might not be familiar with alignment

Streamlined, data-driven alignment solutions are fairly new, so most Board or Executive Team members won’t have experienced them yet. The Mirror Mirror platform for example, is based on integrated psychology research that takes in a wider definition of alignment to include cognition and behaviour at the team level. This is a far cry from simply lining up employee goals with business strategy, as was, and often still is, the common understanding of what alignment means.

 

Today the process of alignment isn’t about people thinking the same thing, it’s about finding coherence – making room for diversity, differences and challenge, new ideas and change. People in teams don’t need agreement they just need to agree on the collective action.

 

4.     Alignment doesn’t feel like leading ‘ought to’

Many leaders feel the urge to ‘be a leader’ by asserting strong opinions and wielding influence. This creates competition and obscures the kind of behaviours that lead to better alignment, like listening, sharing, and opening up to diverse views. They may hope that the usual discussion during recurring meetings will sort everything out. But what doesn’t make it on to the agenda are the gaps in leadership culture, values, or alignment because these are more difficult to identify, and don’t quite fit with the more tangible agenda items.

 

5.     There’s so much more to align on

Strategic, operational, long term and short-term considerations bring complexity and ambiguity, two of the main drivers of misalignment.

 

Keeping up with change alone can fully preoccupy any leadership team, where for example, they might well be wrestling simultaneously with the challenges of a revised longer-term vision, the need to make savings, re-structuring in the face of COVID-19, all while dealing with regulatory changes.

 

It isn’t easy to join the dots between separately managed parts of your organisation, when you’re consumed by what’s happening in your own area of responsibility. Leaders are busy trying to reset multiple moving parts, making challenges elsewhere in the business seem almost irrelevant, and certainly less pressing. This drives a dynamic of leaders acting as individuals rather than a team, again moving away from what’s needed to align.

 

6.     Finally, for leaders and for everyone, alignment conversations are harder when remote - unless they’re well-facilitated

Research has found that people working virtually are 2.5 times more likely to perceive mistrust, incompetence, broken commitments, and bad decision-making with distant colleagues than those with whom they’re co-located. Additionally, people take five to ten times longer to address those concerns.

 

Misalignment affects everyone, but it’s worse for leaders because they’re expected to bring so much experience and expertise to the table. Just as it is with most things at work, alignment doesn’t happen by itself.

 

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For more reading on alignment, download The Alignment Imperative Whitepaper.

 

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Looking to dive deeper into some of the other areas covered in this blog post? Check out our Navigating Talent RiskRecruitment and Retention and Foresight Focus reports and products.

 

Thanks to Steve Hearsum, Michael Moriarty, Anna Wrobel, Philipp Rosenthal, and Bulent Duagi -

all members of the Mirror Mirror network of trained alignment practitioners - for their

contributions to this article.

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