Organizational Alignment: The Whole is Greater than the Sum of its Parts

By Ken Wagner, Ph.D.

Coauthored by: Ken Wagner, Ph.D. and J.P. Martinez

The flames are mesmerizing, the noise overwhelming, and the sheer power is remarkable. These words do not come close to illustrating the brilliance of a rocket launched on its way into space. And while truly incredible, the awe-inspiring physical representation of achieving escape velocity in some ways distracts from the true accomplishment; consider what is necessary for a successful launch. All the people, all the parts, and all the conditions must line up together, in just the right way, at the right time.

launch-of-space-shuttle-into-the-space-picture-id1191352160A successful rocket launch requires the right behaviors from skilled operators and skilled support personnel. It also needs the right processes for planning, engineering, manufacturing, equipment, safety precautions, and navigation. And all of these occur within the context of the right conditions (or systems), such as the Earth’s rotational position, the time of day, and weather conditions. If even one of these is off, the launch won’t be successful.

Compare this to the interdependencies within a complex business organization. An organization is a mini ecosystem with many influences occurring simultaneously, affecting the mission in sometimes unpredictable ways. As with a rocket launch, organizational performance occurs within and among the interactions of organizational systems, processes, and people’s behaviors. If these factors aren’t aligned, performance will be off.

We all know the adage: “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” But this wisdom applies only when those parts are aligned. Here’s the rub: the enterprise-wide systems and processes designed to support company goals often push and pull people toward conflicting choices and out of alignment. These may show up in a lack of clear expectations, or in the metrics used to define successful performance, or in the way rewards are earned, or a host of other potential factors that might impede business-critical behaviors. The impact can vary widely depending on how these factors come together.

Consider these two situations:
In a health insurance company, we have two departments: one processes claims, and the other audits claim processing. The processing department is evaluated on quality processing (they strive for the highest percent accurate claims). But the audit function is evaluated on the number of errors they find; the more they find, the better for them. Both functions are absolutely necessary, but there is no way that both can be successful at the same time! One team is trying to increase their quality score, while the other team is trying to decrease that quality score by finding errors. These are conflicting metrics: it’s not possible for the processing team to have 100% accuracy (their highest rating) while the audit team identifies a high number of errors (their highest rating). This creates tension, animosity, and barriers between the teams.

In a sales organization, competition can be fierce for the rewards of being the top sales producer. Yet, the sales manager may preach teamwork and collaboration, with sales teams meeting regularly to share best practices and trade advice. But in a me-or-them reward system, top sales performers can be reluctant to help others and reluctant to share insights. If it’s me-versus-you, I’m going to work so it’ll be me!

 

Organizational alignment = creating the right environment

Certainly, the intent in these two situations is to maximize the performance of each function. However, there are unintended effects to the company’s larger value chain. Therefore, enhancing enterprise-wide performance requires organizational alignment throughout all the cross-functional systems and mission-critical tactics. Alignment means creating an environment in which all performance-related elements are working together toward a common goal. For example, systematically coordinating elements to ensure:

  • Metrics encourage people to look beyond their function to maximize the entire value chain
  • Training focuses on critical skills linked directly to the company strategy
  • Reward and recognition systems promote innovation, ownership, and teaming
  • Reporting systems provide insightful information
  • Feedback is actionable, forward-looking, and related to mission-critical performance
  • Leaders provide clear direction, positive reinforcement, and constructive feedback for business-critical behaviors
  • Management functions through a cascading approach to positive accountability that builds the capacity of all people

 

Every organization has misalignments

As it turns out, organizations are perfect systems. How can that be? Because the performance that is happening now truly reflects the collection of conditions currently in place, in combination with the specific behaviors that are encouraged (and discouraged) by the systems, processes, and leaders’ actions.

Unfortunately, a close look at how these elements intersect often uncovers unintended barriers. Just as we encourage professional athletes to be team players while celebrating their individual accomplishments, so too do we provide and support unintended messages within organizations. Here are some examples that you might recognize:

Here is our intent... And how it can go awry...
Our leadership communicates company-wide priorities But as messages cascade to the workforce, language gets altered until it has little resemblance to the original communication.
Safety is our core value But the Operations Manager’s first question is, “How did the machines run last shift?” not “Did everyone work a safe shift?” (So, production show up as the priority, overriding safety.)
Customer experience is our strategic focus But some decisions limit resources, adversely affecting customer experience.
Again, customer experience is our strategic focus But what a great customer experience takes may adversely affect employee metrics.
Quality is our differentiator But high demand and rushed onboarding cause shortcuts, which increase mistakes, rework, and waste.
Our senior leaders say these are our priorities But supervisors may focus on short-term problems, unintentionally encouraging different priorities.
Our training teaches standardized, reliable processes But the real-world workplace may force employees to improvise.
Our performance appraisals are thorough and extensive But they may encourage the wrong behaviors, not business-critical behaviors.
Our reward systems are designed based on budget resources and payroll logistics But they may not be aligned with the way more immediate consequences affect over time.

 

Is it difficult to see the organizational forest for the organizational trees?

Genuine alignment takes work, and it isn’t always apparent where to begin. Even the most successful organizations can’t always see what is right in front of them. The daily challenges of business create blind spots to improvement opportunities. Even the brightest minds with the most advanced technology do not always achieve a successful rocket launch. The path toward aligning the organization is not always clear.

It’s helpful to stand back and take a fresh look, with an open mind, and ask questions such as:

  • Why is this done the way it is?
  • What is the intention?
  • What are we trying to promote or achieve with this system, process, or practice?
  • What are we actually accomplishing with this system, process, or practice?
  • Are there conflicting messages?
  • Are there conflicting priorities?
  • Is there a pattern of redundancy or rework?

Ultimately, your systems and metrics set the expectations, and leaders impact performance through their actions. The challenge is to align them all. Applying a science-based approach to assess how your systems, processes, and practices align with your company values can provide a powerful framework for accelerating performance.

ALULA uses a proprietary framework for this very purpose—it’s called DCOM® (for Direction, Competence, Opportunity, Motivation). From a DCOM analysis, you can then design a clear behavioral roadmap, ensuring that leaders lead at the right level, that cross-functional teamwork and taskwork are expected and reinforced, and that the onboarding, training, metrics, feedback, and reward systems are aligned to promote the most effective performance.

While visionaries dream of what is possible and what wonders we may find in space, it is the execution of all the elements together that allow these dreams to take shape. However, once achieved, you’ll find that you’re going from a successful rocket launch to successfully landing and reusing rockets—the value unlocked by true organizational alignment is exponential. The same is true in your organization.

 

About the coauthors:

Ken Wagner, Ph.D. translates human potential into business success to drive profitability, operational excellence, employee engagement, and leader performance. His deep subject matter expertise in leader development, behavioral science, motivation, learning, and systems analysis has given him highly diverse understanding across a broad spectrum of private and public industries ranging from complex, multinational organizations to specialized boutique companies, in more than 20 countries, across 6 continents.

JP Martinez is a performance management and process improvement consultant with long international experience and a proven track record of success in building and directing high-performance work teams. He is a skilled strategist specializing in the integration of both management and process improvement initiatives. An effective driver of operational initiatives, JP has advised internationally in the petrochemical, power generation, manufacturing, and medical industries

© 2021 ALULA. All rights reserved. ALULA® and DCOM® are registered service marks of CLG (dba ALULA).

Topics: Leadership, Leader-Led Change, Alignment

Ken Wagner, Ph.D.

Written by Ken Wagner, Ph.D.