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Stop Chasing Alignment, Homogeneous Cultures Are a Myth

Is organizational alignment something real? Or is it just an illusion?

By Gustavo Razzetti

June 30, 2017

There are over 36,800,000 results when you Google “Cultural Alignment”. I will save you the reading time and share the common thread: “organizational alignment” is the poster child.

If your organization is not aligned, they want to make you feel bad.

I hate to disagree with that approach. Culture alignment is more of a myth than something real.

Getting the entire organization to rally behind something -all the time- is like a mirage. We can all see it. We all pursue it as the perfect oasis in the middle of the desert.

But the illusion of alignment rapidly vanishes once we look at it from a closer distance.

Is Alignment Possible At All?

“We hire professionals for their expertise but then they end bringing their personalities to work.” — Anonymous

If there’s something I’ve learned managing various organizations is that, every time I thought that everyone in an organization was aligned, I was proven wrong.

Most of my clients have experienced that too.

Companies are made of human beings. Don’t expect your organization to be perfect.

Don’t get fooled by picture-perfect’s PR stories of companies like Google, Zappos or Netflix. Those are great companies but have their own issues too. If not, ask Uber.

Alignment is important, but is it for real?

Are people being honest? Or just hiding their ideas or disagreements?

Or, even worse, are your team members pretending to be aligned because they’ve checked out?

The Alignment Paradox

“I can resist anything but temptation.” — Oscar Wilde

There’s a lot of talk about the importance of culture (and alignment). Yet, most definitions are not only vague but full of paradoxes.

1. Culture Is Not Defined But Lived

Culture is everything people do. Culture is not just the mission or a vision defined by “management”. It goes well beyond a poster full of motivational quotes and inspiring purposes.

How those values are lived is what matters the most. Do you provide space for experimentation? How do you deal with mistakes? Can your team make real decisions or are they always need to ask for approval?

The more meaningful and sustainable actions are those organically created by the employees rather than “the management”.

2. Culture Is Seen As Static Yet People Are Always Changing (Their Minds)

Organizational culture is something dynamic. That’s why I always encourage clients to look for “Cultural Fitness” rather than Cultural Fit.

Diversity of thinking is the basis for constant improvement. Group thinking and consensus will only drive repetition, predictability and boredom instead.

Dynamism also affects your top supporters. People change. Those who are top performers can lose their productivity due to personal problems or specific frustrations. Sometimes temporarily, sometimes forever.

Culture brings us together and apart. #Culture #Paradox

3. Organizations Want to Preserve Culture, Yet Turnover Continues to Rise

People come and go. Organizations don’t “own” their employees. That’s why they need to prepare them for when they leave. And be prepared for when they do so.

Many experts will tell you they can reduce your turnover. They don’t realize that the dream of lifetime careers is fading, and not just for Millennials.

My advice: instead of resisting the new paradigm, embrace it. And thrive. How can you embrace turnover to enrich your culture rather than suffer from it?

4. Pursuing Alignment Can Demotivate Top Performers

Every time you get a person or a team aligned, another one gets derailed.

Take kids as an example. As parents, we tend to focus more energy on the one that is “always” in trouble. Once we succeed, what normally happens is that then, another of our kids gets into trouble.

There’s a psychological explanation to that. We are sending the message that trouble-makers deserve more attention.

That’s a pretty common phenomenon at the workplace too. When leaders spend too much time on “who’s not on board” and “why”, it can be a distraction for those who actually are. It can become demoralizing too. By prioritizing energy on “trouble-makers”, those who are aligned might ask themselves: “If the rest don’t care, why should I?”.

5. Alignment Silences Tensions, Yet Tensions Keep Change Alive

Tensions drive innovation, action and passion. Without those elements, it’s hard to win in an ever-changing environment.

A company without tensions is like a family that never has an argument. Behind a picture-perfect image, the members might be suffering from lack of trust and transparent communication.

Being in charge means accepting that leaders are not always right.

6. Alignment Can Inhibit Innovation

Innovation leadership is about managing contradictions.

As Dr. Philip Hucke explains here, an all-or-nothing approach is not effective. Leaders need to balance Exploration (Innovation) and Exploitation (Optimization). Managing existing solutions, business models and operations should not be at the expense of Innovation.

Driving alignment towards the current state of the business can limit the exploration of its future state.

Please Stop Chasing the Alignment Myth

Sorry to shatter your illusion. Don’t expect your workplace to always be supportive. Things will never be smooth.

Facing resistance and constraints is a given for any change agent, regardless of your role. Rather than expecting those barriers to magically disappear, embrace them and use them in your favor.

One of the most rewarding workshops I run, “Fighting the Enemies of Innovation”, tackles exactly that. After spending hours analyzing and understanding their enemies, participants realize that how other people behave is out of our control.

The best way to neutralize our Enemies’ attack is to adapt our own behaviors rather than trying to change them.

To turn them into allies, don’t expect them to change. It’s up to us. We need to change our behaviors to make sure they don’t slow down our organization.

Promoting the Right Behaviors Matters the Most

Focus your energy on developing the right mindsets and behaviors, rather than on alignment.

It took me many years of making mistakes -both as a parent and as a leader to learn the most basic lesson: we cannot control how people will ultimately behave.

  • Treat your team like adults and they will behave as such.
  • Keep telling your team members how to do and they will just please you (or pretend they are doing so).
  • Keep highlighting your employees’ mistakes and they will lose their passion (and your authority will evaporate too).
  • You can set standards, goals and values but provide the freedom for your employees to prioritize their work. Let them decide how to run their projects.
  • Inspire your team to achieve something great and meaningful. And they will surprise you with solutions and results that go well beyond your expectations.

Keep Your Culture Alive One Team At A Time

The best way to change an organization is one team at a time. Here are some team-driven initial steps to rethink alignment.

Decentralize alignment:

It’s easier to start with a team eager to try new things that everyone else would resist. Build on their results and excitement. By scaling “high-performing-teams” you can then scale “alignment”.

CapitalOne, used to provide freedom to individual analysts to make pricing and credit policy decisions, until government regulators force many controls. Moving towards a more centralized-control damaged the entrepreneurial culture employees used to value.

Break down your organizational purpose:

That a janitor told President John F. Kennedy that his job was “helping put a man on the moon” is a nice anecdote to demonstrate the value of a purpose-driven organization. But, most times than not, this is not the reality of the workplace. There’s a huge disconnection between people and their companies’ purpose.

Organizational purposes are important. But having team-specific purposes drive bigger employee engagement. People connect better to the folks that they normally work and the purpose that brings them together.

Alignment by project matters the most:

What people can change or impact makes them more excited. Work is not just doing things. That’s what AI is for. Human beings find pleasure and emotional reward in doing things that make them feel valued and useful.

We saw a huge engagement improvement at my previous company when we implemented Self-Organization. Creating multi-disciplinary teams with full budget and decision-making authority increased commitment.

Contributing to making projects come to life, drives passion and makes work feel more meaningful.

I guess we can all align behind that purpose.

What do you think?



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Let Innovation Thrive

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