When is urgent organizational alignment needed?
As an organization grows, there are inflection points that require urgent organizational alignment. Of these, organizational size is the simplest rough measure, but there are others. Here are some telltale signs that it’s time to get serious about organizational alignment:
- I feel we have lost our way as an organization. I’m not as excited about what we do anymore.
- The new people we are hiring don’t share our values.
- I don’t know everyone any more. I’m beginning to feel like a stranger inside the company.
- I feel we could use a lot more professional empathy around here.
- Conflict between teams is intensifying.
- What are our Core Values? I’ve heard the acronym, but it does not mean anything for my day-to-day.
- We have Core Values but they are just words. They don’t really mean anything for anyone in the company.
- I wish I could make a decision and not be punished later if someone feels it’s the wrong one.
- Our values are a means of control, not a tool for autonomous decision-making.
- If I have to make a hard decision I always ask my boss. Some pretty silly things go way up the chain of command.
- We have a culture of fear instead of a culture of responsibility.
- I’ve been in a company with a strong culture and there, everyone knew what was right and what wasn’t. Here it seems this depends entirely on who your boss or team leader happens to be.
What is organizational alignment?
Organizational alignment, also called cultural alignment, is the connection of your organizational Core Values to practices and behaviors that are shared widely and apply to everyone from the CEO to the part-time staff. Alignment enhances team as well as individual performance and motivation. We look at organizational alignment as the internal application of the brand, connecting the organizational brand promise meaningfully to operational behavior. The key mechanism of organizational alignment may be an inspirational leader, but for a more long-lasting foundation, Core Values serve as a powerful and contextually flexible tool around which to build the practices for alignment.
What kinds of organizations benefit from doing this work?
All organizations will benefit, but the urgency of this work is dependent on a number of factors, most important of which are organizational size and organizational leadership. As a general rule, the larger and more complex the organization, the more important organizational alignment becomes. And highly charismatic and forceful leaders can align teams or whole organizations under them, but this type of personality-driven alignment has a number of drawbacks. What happens when the inspirational CEO retires, is fired, or gets hit by a bus? Their successor may be unable to sustain the effort or have different inclinations. It is problematic if an organization’s Core Values shift with each new leader.
Practically no matter how strong the personality of leadership is, some formalized mechanisms for cultural transmission and continuity are necessary if the organization is large enough. We suggest abstracting the personality of the CEO into a set of core principles, which will have staying power beyond the tenure of any particular leader. The establishment of these principles—Core Values—also protects the brand promise of an organization better than reliance on personality.
In micro organizations
Small family-like teams generally do not need to do this work as Core Values are shared and maintained through organic behavior modeling. This kind of natural maintenance of a de facto set of Core Values becomes increasingly difficult as an organization grows, and even for a small organization, some degree of formalization would be helpful in the brand continuity of organizational alignment.
In an organization with fewer than 15 full-time employees, organizational alignment may be overkill, but clarification of your Core Values and building operational practices and behavioral norms that align with them is still very important. This can be done in a very small organization with minimal formal protocols. Maybe it’s just a written set of Core Values with clear definitions and regular performance reviews that coordinate goal-setting and performance incentives around those same Core Values.
Abstracting the personality of the CEO into a set of core principles will have staying power beyond the tenure of any particular leader.
As an organization grows, however, team specialization and organizational complexity make organizational alignment more relevant to overall performance and morale. The range between 15 and 50 employees is a case-by-case scenario, with a general trend that dictates that your cultural alignment efforts be more formalized with additional people you take on. Communicating and maintaining a shared set of principles across all functions and all members of all teams is natural with smaller teams but grows increasingly tenuous as team size and team diversity expand.
In small businesses and small organizations
We strongly recommend doing the work of cultural alignment in organizations of 50 to 150 employees, and above 150 organizational alignment is a mandatory best practice if you intend to stay ahead of your competition. Granted, an influencing factor in the urgency of organizational alignment work is the forcefulness of the founder or CEO’s personality and the cultural strictness the organization maintains in hiring.
Does the organization already hire for cultural fit or does it put more emphasis on pure qualifications? Is hiring the bailiwick of unit heads who have divergent personalities and leadership styles or is it the responsibility of HR operating off of job descriptions, skill sets, and loose guidelines pertaining to cultural fit? Or is hiring a process that is tightly controlled by leadership with all new hires personally interviewed by the CEO for example? A naturally high degree of organic conformity to a de facto set of Core Values delays the need for more formal processes. Most, if not all companies, could benefit from a more intentional organizational culture, but there is a range.
Misuse and benefits of organizational alignment
It is also important to note that some caution is in order here as a strict approach to cultural alignment, while powerful, can also backfire. The misanthropic culture of Uber comes to mind. Another red flag is an exclusionary culture that exhibits systemic bias against minorities or other groups who are particularly susceptible to discrimination. So thoughtfulness is always in order when it comes to an examination of the impact in practice of any policy or even of a principle, especially a principle that could be coercive. Core Values such as “accountability” or “diligence” are ripe for misuse when given an overlay of racial bias for example. A strong, well-balanced, and very small set (ideally three) of constructive Core Values is a necessary prerequisite to running an effective cultural alignment effort.
The benefits of a well-executed organizational alignment effort are multifold and we often observe an improvement in interfunctional professional empathy and facilitation of cross-team collaboration. The Core Values framework allows for organizations to elevate conflicts above the simple exercise of arbitrary authority and achieve process improvements more easily. And even if you are not yet at the organizational size where it would be mandatory as a best practice, we might recommend alignment. While the teams in your organization may already be skilled at having difficult conversations, those could be even more productive if the organization has a robust and universally understood internal framework for organizational culture.