On Alignment

The term “alignment” is at the cemetery gates for IT buzzwords.  On one hand, it is very encouraging to see the concept of alignment getting so much attention in trade publications and blogs; on the other hand, the lack of definition around the term has led it down the path of so many fundamental ideas before it that have lost their way due to the complex critical thinking required for large scale comprehension and applicability.  Alignment is an absolute necessity and can’t be left to die simply because it is not clearly defined for the masses.

What is alignment?  I don’t think I could define it any better than dictionary.com already has:

A state of agreement or cooperation among persons, groups…etc., with a common cause or viewpoint.

There are two key components of this definition – cooperation, and a common cause.  It is rare that the former exists without the latter, so finding a common cause is a good starting point for discussing alignment.  The concept of common cause in most organizations is fractured and hierarchical, and herein lies the first obstacle in understanding and pursuing alignment; due to the hierarchy of reporting relationships and functions within most companies, common causes need to be defined at both holistic and granular levels, many times with a number of intermediary causes that correlates to the amount of layers within the organization.  Common causes, in order to be effective drivers of cooperation and unification, need to be known, understood, and accepted by the members of any group, large or small.  This requires a high degree of effective communication at several levels, and such communication presents significant challenges and (and of course opportunities) in itself.

In the context of aligning the business units, functions, and employees of an organization, especially the function and employees of Information Technology, it is imperative that common causes are envisioned and communicated with the purpose of unification in mind.  It is equally important for leaders at each level of an organization to reinforce the effect of a unifying purpose by driving acceptance within the sphere of influence; usually as a message is communicated throughout an organization, the signal becomes weaker and must be amplified in a manner that extends the reach of the message without distorting its purpose and meaning.  When a message reaches the functional level is usually the point where the signal is distorted, as managers and employees tend to interpret and rebroadcast the message in function-specific terms.  This seems to be especially true in a function such as Information Technology, where the highly technical nature of the employees necessarily requires a more literal interpretation of the message; this presents the risk of the spirit of the message being lost and the letter of the message being misinterpreted due to lack of context.

Assuming communication barriers can be overcome and a message is received at every level of a company, the next great challenge is to manage the output of the organization to achieve the objectives of the common cause.  Effective execution requires more than simply having everyone “on the same page,” it requires the alignment of activities and functions from one end of an organization to the other in order to maximize the value of the output; this is where visionary leadership and effective management intersect.  In order for alignment to occur, whether in a horizontal, process-driven organization, or a functionally siloed, hierarchical organization, the common cause of the organization must be broken down into individual goals that collectively drive the required end results.  Just as the communication of a common cause required a message to be distributed at a level of granularity appropriate to the audience at a given level of organizational hierarchy, the collective effort of an organization has to be distributed across business units, across functions, and ultimately among individual employees.

The hierarchical nature of organizations lends itself to a hierarchy of unifiers that drive alignment throughout the organization.  The hierarchy, as we view it at The Mikan Group, consists of the following (please imagine a stylish graphic until one can be designed and included in a future white paper on the subject):

  • Ideology – foundational framework of values and beliefs
  • Vision – optimal anticipated end state aligned with Ideology
  • Strategy – the general direction taken in pursuit of the Vision
  • Goals – desired outcomes on a chosen path in the direction of the Strategy
  • Objectives – necessary and measurable outcomes required to achieve Goals
  • Plans – defined, organized, and sequenced work aligned to specific Objectives
  • Tactics – methods for executing Plans
  • Actions – execution of work, whether defined by or exclusive of, Tactics

When applied to the “alignment hierarchy” (Ideology > Vision > Strategy > Goals > Objectives > Plans > Tactics > Actions), the concept of ubiquitous common cause correlates predominantly to the Ideology and Vision of an organization, and to a lesser extent to Strategy and Goals.  At the top of this hierarchy lie the concepts that, for all intents and purposes, transcend business unit and functional boundaries and are primarily generated from the top of the traditional organizational hierarchy.  As the alignment hierarchy is traversed, each level tends to correspond to a more granular level of the organizational hierarchy; just as Ideology and Vision corresponded to the top of the organizational hierarchy, Tactics and Actions correspond to the individual workers in the organizational hierarchy.  This does not imply that the top of the organization does not have any connection to Tactics or Actions, nor does it imply that the staff level does not influence Ideology or Vision; the implication lies in the strength of the correlation between like positions on the respective hierarchies.

What this all means, in essence, is that Ideology and Vision are communicated top-down, and the Tactics and Actions employed in executing the Ideology and Vision are executed bottom-up.  This is not earth shattering analysis by any means, but it is an important idea to ponder as the concept of organizational alignment is fleshed out.  The opportunity for effective alignment lies more towards the center of the hierarchy, where Strategy and Goals are defined in support of the Ideology and Vision.  In an organization segmented by function and managed in a traditional top-down structure, Strategy and Goals are where the functional tiers of the organization logically align their more granular and specific modes of operating with the higher level cross-functional Strategy and Goals.  This is where the greatest opportunity for alignment exists, and subsequently where the greatest alignment challenge lies; it is also the entry point into business units (and subsequently functional silos), and the point where alignment success or failure cascades to the lower tiers of not only the organizational hierarchy, but also the alignment hierarchy.

When the Strategy and Goals of a business unit align with the holistic Strategy and Goals of the organization, the business unit Objectives and Plans will be formulated to move the business unit (and presumably the subordinate functions) in the direction of the Strategy and Goals.  Any misunderstanding of or disagreement with the organizational Strategy and Goals at this level is highly detrimental to the entire organization, because the lack of alignment will cause the business unit and its subordinate functional units to formulate Objectives, Plans, Tactics, and Actions that at best add significantly diminished value than what is expected and required by the organization to meet its Goals in support of its Strategy, and at worst handicaps or causes irreparable damage to the organization.  Strategy and Goals may exist at each level of an organizational hierarchy, but it is absolutely imperative that they are aligned with the higher level Strategy and Goals at each higher level of the hierarchy to ensure that the resulting Objectives, Plans, Tactics, and Actions are in alignment with the Strategy and Goals of not only the respective operating unit at a given level of an organizational hierarchy, but with each level above it.

When this concept is applied to a horizontal, process-driven organization, alignment is no less important than it is in any other organizational structure; it simply has less vertical levels to traverse, and by nature a process shares a common alignment hierarchy (i.e. flat) from input through output.  Process orientation implies alignment with organization Strategy and Goals, and when adjustments need to be made to a process to improve alignment, they are integrated into the process design and disseminated to the process team by a unifying process owner that ensures that the resulting output of a process is understood by every contributor to the process, regardless of functional orientation.  The general management function in a process-driven organization is responsible for ensuring that the output of a given process is aligned with the inputs for dependent processes, and any adjustments to such outputs are either communicated to a process owner that makes required process design changes, or the dependent processes make changes to the input interfaces to ensure alignment and integration.  These are predominantly adjustments to Plans, Tactics, and Actions, as the fundamental Strategy, Goals, and Objectives remain in fundamental alignment throughout the processes of an organization; this is a key point, as the number of “moving parts” throughout an alignment hierarchy are minimized, which reduces complexity and focuses the organization on achieving core Vision and Strategy rather than continuously making adjustments throughout the hierarchy of a functionally-oriented organization that may or may not be successfully executed.

Obviously this is a subject that warrants more thorough research and detailed explanation than what the Blog format provides, but the intention was not to communicate an authoritative viewpoint on the concept of alignment, but to create a starting point for discussion on the subject that is removed from the rapidly proliferating rhetoric.  Paradoxically, while it is important that the concept of alignment has made its way into mainstream trade publications, this exposure and the lack of clarity surrounding the definition of ‘alignment’ are what will cause it to be dismissed as yet another buzzword that failed to gain the traction required to stimulate the discussion and debate required to turn a rough idea into a well articulated framework for practical application.

Mike Topalovich Salesforce Technical Architect in Chicago
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