Back in the “good old days” when I worked for another consulting company, my colleagues used to tease me by calling me “the king of alignment” because it was all I ever wanted to do and all I ever wanted to sell to clients. Now, having worked with so many wonderful clients over the years, I have a lot to say about alignment, and I am still learning every day. I never go out anymore to sell alignment – I just meet with people to hear what their organizational issues are, and almost always my proposed approach is to start by aligning the executive team. I do it because it works.
People ask me, “What are the common challenges of team alignment?”, and here are a few:
- Hardly anybody understands the importance and power of team alignment. Thus, the first challenge of team alignment is for the team to have any attention on it at all. Here’s a phenomenon that is so common that when I say it, everybody knows what I am talking about – team members in meetings nod their heads as if they are “on board”, but when they leave the meeting, they are shaking their heads, and, more importantly, not carrying out decisions and directions in accord with what was decided. Everybody knows it; but everybody typically assumes this is just the way it is and has to be.
- The myth of charisma and brilliant decisions. Leaders think that the way to get alignment is either through the sheer force of your wonderful charisma, or, lacking that, by always making brilliant decisions that everyone will align with. Or both. I imagine a really charismatic leader who everybody adores is possible, but I haven’t had anybody that I’ve seen who can do that. And you can’t always make “brilliant” decisions that everybody loves, because everybody has their own ideas about what should happen, and people don’t let go of wanting to be right very easily (this is a separate challenge, see below).
- People don’t let go of wanting to be right very easily. This is one of the main stumbling blocks to alignment. They don’t just not want to let go of being right; they don’t think that they can, or should. Team alignment can be defined as the ownership of decisions once they are reached. “But,” says most people, once they actually get what that means, “I’m the expert at ____________, so if I don’t agree with a decision regarding that area, are you trying to tell me I should own it 100%?” Yup, absolutely. I sometimes quote a line from the mystic poet, Rumi:
Beyond the concept of right and wrong, there is a field.
I will meet you there.
- Trust. Trust is always an issue. Team members don’t trust the leader; leaders don’t trust the team members. Individuals don’t trust decisions made that they don’t agree with (“Have you ever been wrong?” I sometimes ask them). Individuals don’t trust themselves. Another way to define team alignment is everybody pulling in the same direction. This usually occurs when everybody is clear about the future (vision) they are working on together, and then aligns on decisions reached in the light of that future. But what if you don’t trust yourself enough to trust any direction toward which a team is going?
- Not being clear about the context for action. This goes back to the future alluded to in the last bullet. The simplest definition I know of for a team is this: a group of people working together toward the same end. That end is the context for action, the light at the end of the tunnel that everyone is working toward. If it’s not clear, there will not be alignment.
- Personal agendas. Everybody on every team has their own personal agenda. It’s human nature to want something out of what you are working toward with others, especially at work. People want to get ahead, to be successful, to look good, to look better than everybody else, to not fail, to please everybody, and so on. I’ve worked with executive teams in which half the people on the team thought they should have been the one who got the top job and resent the one who did. It’s not that one shouldn’t have their agendas; they just shouldn’t let their own agendas get in the way of the fulfillment of the end the team is out to accomplish. In team sports, individuals who are only out for their own glory usually don’t go as far as they could if they had the success of the team as number one priority. On business teams, this challenge is critical to get beyond.
- The resistance to change. Maybe this one is too obvious, and maybe all of the other challenges are versions of this resistance, but it does have to be mentioned, because it’s huge. People will say they are willing to change…until it comes time for that person to change. Then it turns out, they were willing for “those others” to change, because they needed it. Team alignment requires people to change; to learn something new, to re-learn some things they think they know, to acknowledge that they have been as blind in some areas as anybody else.
These are the major challenges of team alignment. I did not have the time or space to dwell on how one tackles those challenges so that they end up with an aligned team. It is a big undertaking, but, to quote a few lines from John F. Kennedy,
“We choose to go [to the moon]…not because [it is] easy, but because [it is] hard, because that goal will serve to measure and organize the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”
Aligning a team is not as difficult as going to the moon. In other words, it is not rocket science. But it’s tricky, and it’s worth it.