I keep thinking about the pivotal scene in Finding Nemo when the school of fish is caught in a big, menacing net. Nemo takes the helm, shouts “Swim down!” and the combined downward force of the school detaches the net from the ship. Because of Nemo’s quick thinking, and the school’s trust in his plan, they’re able to escape out of the net to fish freedom. If just a few of his schoolmates had traveled upward or sideways – they’d be fish sticks.
It’s the same story with business projects and initiatives. Without team alignment, you are, in effect, battering and deep-frying your chances of success from the very beginning.
To be clear – we are not talking about agreement, where the destination, route and swimming technique are acceptable to 100 percent of the school; instead, alignment is about deciding to cooperate and to do whatever is required–regardless of whether or not everyone agrees. In achieving alignment, we hope that our team members recognize that by swimming alone, they will more certainly become bait for a larger fish, or become fish sticks.
Of course, gauging whether your team is aligned can be a moving target. Those awkward silences, wary head-nods and glazed eyeballs can seem like a lack of alignment – but if the team indeed trusts in the common good–and has enough confidence in the leadership and management team to know that the common good is paramount in return–you can successfully move forward.
So, how do we tackle the issue of alignment, in order to achieve better organizational success? Business leaders can follow these six steps to make sure they’re on the path to alignment, and free of the menacing net. These six steps are as follows:
- Be transparent about exactly how you’re going to decide what direction to take. If you’re going into a meeting where a decision will be made, set expectations for the process you’re going to use to make that decision. Will it be by consensus? By vote? If it’s ultimately going to be a top-down decision, say it – don’t pretend otherwise.
- Communicate that the meeting has two goals—and achieving alignment will be just as important as making the decision. Leaders need to help the team understand that unless everyone moves in the same direction, the organization won’t go as far or fast as it could separately, in any other direction.
No matter what decision is made, there won’t be a fair chance at success unless everyone agrees to pull in the same direction. A half-hearted attempt will be diminished, skewed, or possibly even end up sending the group down the wrong tangent.
- Explore opportunities and risk for each direction you could take. Once everyone understands and accepts the importance of alignment, a good way to achieve it is through a group opportunity/risk analysis of all proposed directions. This goes beyond examining data and other evidence, giving you the intel to weigh potential rewards against potential risks.
For each risk identified, determine what the organization would have to start, stop or continue doing in order to mitigate the risk. Will those actions bring the risk down to an acceptable level? Is the organization willing and able to take those actions? It’s a process worth spending some time on, as it can help everyone—even those who don’t agree when a direction is chosen—understand why the decision has been made, and feel invested in aligning with it.
- Acknowledge and value skeptics. In every organization there are people who are exceptionally good at seeing around corners. During the process to alignment, these people usually focus most on risks. It’s important not to let their voices be drowned out or denigrated by the enthusiasts. The group needs to hear and seriously engage in their concerns, and skeptics need to feel valued, if they’re to align themselves when a decision is made.
- Enlist skeptics in risk mitigation. One way to help people who don’t agree with a decision is to ask them to take responsibility for finding a way to mitigate their top concern. In taking on a leadership role for this aspect of the project, they will have a greater stake in its overall success.
- Continue to systematically expose, examine and mitigate risks as you move forward. Set up check-in points for your leadership team throughout your project lifecycle, to ensure the whole team can be made aware of and become engaged in mitigating any emerging risks. Sometimes, project leaders avoid exposing the details of unanticipated problems to CEOs, for fear of diminishing team confidence and momentum. Actually, it’s the reverse. When your team knows they won’t be kept in the dark and will have the support to deal with whatever lies ahead as team, they become more agile.
Investing in the process of finding alignment is worth the time. When project teams are aligned and initiatives flow smoothly, leaders don’t have to micromanage – because the details seem to take care of themselves; and if conditions change, everyone corrects course efficiently and fluidly as a unit, like Nemo and his school. If you follow the six steps above, you too will have the tools to empower your team to swim together, moving as a cohesive unit in the same positive direction.
CEOs: What if you’re the one who doesn’t agree with a group decision? Should leaders empower their teams to go in what they believe is the “wrong direction”? We’ll answer this question, and explore the art of Managing from Paradox in my next post.