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Balance Alignment with Agility to Achieve Culture

By Anna Tavis Ph.D.

Calls for organizational alignment have headlined strategy publications for the last 20 years. A McKinsey 2014 paper, “The Aligned Organization,” summed up the claim that achieving real alignment gave an organization a strategic advantage. “It has a clearer sense of what to do at any given time, and it can trust people to move in the right direction.”

Not so fast, caution Amy Kates and Greg Kesler, the authors of the lead article in The Perspectives on Organizational Alignment in the spring issue of People+Strategy Journal. Speaking from the vantage point of their global organization design practice, they have discovered that organizations have become too complex and the pace of change has accelerated so fast that complete alignment has become un-achievable in practical terms. In theory, alignment is still a worthy aspiration. In practice, it is too internally focused and consumes too many internal resources and too much time to be effective.

Through years of practice, Kates and Kesler arrived at an elegant and effective formula. Align where it is most important, focus on nodes of high risk and high impact, and invest in high-trust relationships where high-impact connections make a difference. Do not overlook the importance of critical conversations. Finally, differentially invest leadership energy and formal structures in mission critical nodes. Along comes the list of 2020 alignment priorities in digital strategy, new business models, and growth markets.

I invited four HR leaders from Red Hat, Kellogg Company, Cargill, and BNY Mellon share their experience and perspective on when, what and how to align their organizations.

DeLisa Alexander, CHRO of Red Hat, explains how important shared mission and values are for their fast paced, client focused technology culture. Open source approach is key with everyone contributing to the discussion. “Rather than seeking to align everyone at once, the team made the strategic decision to work openly, inviting the entire company to see and contribute to their efforts.” The outcome is exactly the desired culture of high alignment, engagement and innovation.

Melissa Howell, CHRO of Kellogg Company, focuses her attention on the alignment at the executive team level. “Go slow to go fast is the right principle here” she writes. Her important lesson is to invest the time upfront “to have the right conversations upfront pays off in quick execution every time.”

LeighAnne Baker, Cargill’s CHRO, tells us that her company is “too big, too diverse, and too complex to attempt alignment across more than a few critical corporate center-led guide-posts.” It is the role of HR at Cargill to identify those critical points that call for center-led alignment.

Monique R. Herena, CHRO of BNY Mellon, sees balancing alignment and agility as part of her role at a firm-wide level. At BNY Mellon, alignment is not about consensus on all issues but about setting up a protocol for decision making. If the decision process is clear, such alignment becomes a performance accelerator, not an obstacle, she argues.

The joined conclusion we arrived at makes a strong case for companies to take up alignment in the context of organization priorities and investing in alignment only when it makes a real business difference.  In all cases, however, investing in agile networks and culture is a must for organizations of all types.

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