Reid Givens

Thoughts from a few decades of marketing, management, and music

Menu

Articles & Thoughts

Engagement and alignment -
You can't have one without the other.

Many hands make light work. A group of people working together toward a common goal can make more progress than an individual alone, provided the approach and values are shared among the group.

Many people working to build a house will get that house built faster than if one person tried to construct the whole thing themselves, at least up to a point. But more important than the number people helping out is the shared values and vision the group holds.

If the priority of values in the group is speed above all else, quality can take a back seat if a trade off needs to be made. If instead quality is deemed the most important value then speed may suffer.

There is no right or wrong way to prioritize values as they are situationally dependent, but if a conflict arises within a group over which values are most important, the extra hands can turn from an asset into a liability.

Conflicts over priorities can cause time and effort to be wasted as work will need to be redone, in the best case. In the worst case, it can cause the entire project to stall or become so confusing that no one is really quite sure what should be done.

To really make significant progress on a project, not only do you need enough hands helping out, but they all need to be in agreement over what the ultimate outcome is and what the values and operating norms of the group are.

In organizations, this concept is called alignment. When an organization is well aligned, everyone is working together toward a shared goal, the same goal.

In part, this is a function of having the right people with the right skills working on the right things at the right time. A challenge in itself to be sure, but assigning work is only part of what takes to find alignment. The other is in deciding what is most important to work on at all, why it matters, and what values the group shares.

A good analogy is taking a family vacation. Someone needs to book the hotels, air travel, and coordinate who will walk the dog when the family is gone. Theses are all important tasks, but it's not where you start. A better starting point is where the family should go and what they should do when they get there.

Maybe the parents want to find a secluded beach house where the family can unplug for a week. The teenager wants to go to Europe to see as much of the art and architecture as can be crammed into a week, and the smaller kids just want to go to Disneyland to see Mickey and Minnie Mouse.

No matter how good you are at planning the logistics of the trip and assigning the tasks to get it all set up, not getting the group to agree on where to go and what to do can make all the rest of the effort useless.

Is the purpose of the vacation to relax and recharge or to have a new experience together? How much time should be scheduled with activities and how much of it should be left open? Getting everyone aligned around the answers to these questions makes the vacation much better for everyone.

Of course the parents could just make all the decisions and give the kids the itinerary. After all, the parents are the ones paying for the vacation, they are the leaders of the family, and they have the most life experience , so presumably they know what will be best for the kids. This approach is certainly the fastest way to get on with booking the trip. However, as anyone who has ever been on a trip with moody kids that don't want to be there can tell you, it may not be the best idea. Unfortunately, this is often the way alignment is approached in many organizations.

Alignment is often presented as something that flows from senior leadership down the ranks of the organization. After all, the senior leaders have more experience in the industry than those below them, and are in the best position to set strategy and goals for the organization. Once an agreement is reached at the executive level (they are in alignment), they then turn to get the rest of the organization on board and aligned as well.

This is the primary function of management. Management is, above all, concerned with the efficiency and effectiveness of the organization. Turning the vision and goals of an organization into focused, aligned action is the charge of managers.

There is nothing wrong with this broad strokes view of how alignment is created and enforced in an organization, but it isn't necessarily complete. Alignment touches not only on what to do but also wades into the waters of purpose and values. This is why managing isn't enough.

Projects, processes, and things can be managed, but people must be led.

Unlike factory work, knowledge works' defining characteristic is that employees not only need to get work done, but be able to determine what work needs to be done in the first place. Knowledge work has distributed alignment from an activity done exclusively by senior management to one achieved in little pieces across the organization.

Everyone in your employ shows up each day with their own set of values and purpose. In a perfect world, you and your management team can find a way to align the goals and values of the organization with each employee's values. In this ideal scenario, everyone is not only moving in the same direction, but truly believes that the direction is the right one and the values and outcomes are worth pursuing.

Operating a machine on a factory floor doesn't require the consideration of value priority to ensure the work is getting done, or that the work being done is completed in the right way. Alternatively, knowledge workers need to consider such things in order to do anything worthwhile. The factory machine will just hum away doing whatever it does the same way every time, but when a knowledge worker approaches a task they must consider the trade offs in their approach directed by values.

Prior to the explosion of knowledge work, most value based decisions were restricted to professional positions further up in the organizational hierarchy. Managers, directors, and department heads needed to weigh the pros and cons of any approach and ensure they matched the stated values of the organization. Once that was done, these decisions were passed down to the rest of the workforce whose only job was to get the work done according to the plan.

The age of the knowledge worker has changed this dynamic. Front line employees must consider the values of the organization more than ever when making day-to-day decisions about their work. The variation in the details of work now exceed the ability to plan every scenario ahead of time.

A customer support representative has to know what they can and cannot offer an irate customer to make them satisfied. Should they stay on the phone with a customer for as long as the customer wants, or do they need to talk to as many customers as they can in a day? What are they incentivized to do? Do they know why they should value one approach over another? Do they personally agree with the prioritization?

It takes much less effort and incentivizing to get someone to do something they intrinsically want to do anyway. Conversely, it can take a lot of time, effort, and money to get someone to go against what they think is right. It can be equally difficult to get someone to change their mind about what they value because you cannot demand that change. People have to change their own minds.

A person who values deep relationships will have a harder time meeting a call quantity goal because they will want to spend more time with each customer. Conversely, a highly competitive person who loves to see their number, any number, rise to the top of the list will more easily hit a quantity metric and may be willing to sacrifice quality to get there. The values posted on the walls of the organization's conference room will do little to change the way these two employees approach their work.

Identifying people who have values compatible with the organization is an important part of recruitment. The closer the match between a new hire's values and the company's values, the better off everyone will be. However, trying to identify what a person truly values is hard to during the normal interview process.

Additionally, people are not static in their thoughts and beliefs. Any number of things can cause a person to shift their priorities and values, so someone who aligns perfectly with a company's values today may not tomorrow.

In the same way, organizations have a hard time articulating their shared values when searching for a new employee. Sure, there is probably a list of stated values written down somewhere, but how often are those values the actual ones followed when the work is getting done on a daily basis. Anyone who pays attention to the business press can surely recall any number of stories where what a company said they cared about and what they actually do aren't the same. Enron and Wells Fargo come to mind easily.

Alignment is a temporary state, not a destination. It is fluid and changes over time. Once alignment is achieved, it may not persist forever as values, priorities, and goals change. In fact, they must change over time in response to new information, market shifts, and changing personnel. As new information comes in, it needs to be accounted for with plans and strategies adjusted to match. The time it takes to make these adjustments depends on how far the information must travel from its source to the person who can make changes to the plan and back again to be acted upon.

To operate most effectively in knowledge work, employees must be able to adjust the strategy and plan for themselves how to react to new information.

Requiring that all new information travel up the organization's hierarchy and wait for the next leadership meeting for a decision to be made before it can travel back down to the employee to be acted upon is horribly inefficient. Often, more pertinent information comes in while waiting for this round trip that could affect the decision. In this scenario, the delay becomes compounded, vastly slowing down the ability for the employee to do their job.  At best, this leads to the employee becoming frustrated and at worst demoralized and disengaged.

As the goal of management is to be effective and ensure efficiency, this style of operating is counter to management's purpose. If operated in this way, the more management levels get added, the less effective management becomes. The problem here is not in the size of the organization or how many managers there are, but in the approach. The more control is consolidated, the less effective management is.

All of the technological advances we have made in the past century have not led to vast amounts of free time, as was predicted when computers and robots took over some of our tasks. Instead, we have used that additional bandwidth to speed up everything up. One computer and a person can do the work it used to take 5 or 6 people in the same amount of time. As a result of this new found capacity, we assign the work of several people to one and by and large, it all gets done on time.

Work is now getting done at a faster pace and we can all feel it. Everything seems to feel like it has sped up because it actually has. Management practices that require having everything travel up and down the organization chart simply cannot keep up in this paradigm.

Employees must be empowered to make decisions on their own to keep up with the pace of business. That, by definition, means they need to have more control over their work and management needs to have less.

Most organizations understand this, and allow a reasonable amount of autonomy to employees to do their work. Additional autonomy brings with it the need for stronger alignment to ensure everyone is moving in the same direction and toward the same goals with the same value priorities.

Command and control style management is not fast enough to keep up. Gaining alignment at the senior level and then handing down what work needs to be done isn't enough. To keep up with the speed of business, the tactics applied need to be agile. The person doing the work needs to have the autonomy to apply the right tactic in the right situation to meet the goal. What these empowered employees need to know is what needs to be accomplished and why that is important.

If the goals and the reasons these goals are important resonates with an employee, they will fully engage and bring everything they have to their work. If they don't agree with or understand the reason they are doing their work, they become confused, demoralized or disengaged.

Communicating the goals and reasons behind the goals in a way that ties into the overall mission, vision, and values of the organization is the charge of leadership. It is the most important thing they do. Without this, employees cannot determine if the purpose of the work aligns with their personal beliefs and values. Without that, they cannot fully engage.

If the organization's stated goals, values, or strategies are in conflict with an employee's personal values or beliefs, that employee will disengage. To get them to re-engage something has to change, either the employee's beliefs or the company's. Both are reasonable options.

It is taken for granted that the company's perspective should rule in any such conflict. The company pays for the employees time and therefore should be able to direct where that time is spent. That idea isn't necessarily wrong, but has nothing to do with engagement. You may be able to make someone do what you want, but you cannot make them like it.

If the conflict is too great, the employee is free to find work elsewhere and the employer is free to replace that person with someone else who will be more naturally aligned with the goals of the company. In theory this is true, but in practice it isn't so clear that it's a viable model.

For the above to be viable in practice, each employee must be treated as a replaceable part. The idea is that any number of people could fill that position and produce similar results. Likewise, there must a number of interchangeable companies that a person can work for that will provide similar environments, work duties, and compensation. If these two things are in fact true, then matching employees to companies on values should result in high levels of both work satisfaction and output.

This world view is appealing because if we can figure out how to do this matchmaking, then everyone wins and is happy. We have been trying for quite a while to crack the code on identifying how to streamline this process through personality tests, pre-employment screenings, and multiple-step interview processes. After decades of iterations on tests and the proliferation of recruiting advice, what we have found is that values, like personality, are not static but context dependent. They change with the situation.

Considering in this case the context is largely the dynamic of the employee employer relationship and the company's culture, it's nearly impossible to assess whether there will be an enduring match in values before employment starts. On top of that, the values and priorities of those values can and will change over time for both the employee and the employer. The idea that there is one perfect personality type that fits inside of one perfect organization is akin to, and just as dangerous, as the idea of having one true soulmate suitable for a romantic partnership. It makes a good story but the reality just isn't there.

Long term, healthy romantic partnerships work because both parties are willing to make it work. They do not try and change the other person, demand compliance, or acquiesce to every demand of their partner. They work together and support each other without trying to control.

Good long term friendships operate the same way. When a conflict arises, especially when values change as they do over time, the parties take the time to listen to each other and see how the relationship can support the change by altering behaviors or roles.

People come together in groups through leadership, not management.

It's easy to think that in business the rules must be different because the dynamic is not between two people. The relationship in business is between an abstract idea (the company) represented by people (the leadership and management) and many employees. The company cannot easily change its values to match every employee because all of those values are going to be different.

In part that is true, but each relationship in a company is still just between people. We see large groups of people coming together despite their unique differences all the time. From families that have multiple children, to entire cities and countries, we can assemble in complex relationships with many people and make it work. As social creatures, it is one of the things we do surprising well.

Groups establish a set of shared values as modeled by its leaders. This doesn't happen through mandates from the top, but organically as the group finds what works out best for them. The group identifies the best leaders and through an innate process finds its equilibrium by finding the situationally appropriate values they want to emulate from multiple sources where they see it embodied the best.

Children will emulate what they think is best from each parent or adult in their life and social groups identify which of its members are the best examples of what they want to be like. We find the leaders in our group and follow them, taking bits and pieces from multiple sources.

We take for granted that the leadership in a company resembles the organizational hierarchy. In a perfect world this is true, but simply labeling someone a leader isn't enough. Leadership is a position that must be earned through the given respect of those they lead.

Somewhere in your company or department is a person who is regarded as particularly knowledgeable, or kind to everyone, or who can always seems to make things work no matter how hard the task is. This person is a leader to the group, regardless of where they are in the organizational hierarchy. Due to the respect that is given them from the other employees in the organization, they have as much, if not more, credible influence on the culture than someone with Director or VP attached to their title.

Alignment, engagement, and culture are largely defined by these leaders more than from any other source. Not because they occupy a box higher up in the org chart, but because they model values and behaviors that others find desirable within the group's context. Each of these organic leaders influence the culture by the trait and value they model best.

It's not usually one single person that directs the entire culture and value priority of the company. The smart person in engineering, who people turn to when they have complex situations to work through is the individual the group looks to for guidance and direction for intellectual value standards. The kind person in marketing can act as the group's conscience by modeling and influencing interpersonal relationship values.

Should one of these organic leaders leave, or the shared situation of the group cause values to change, a new leader will be identified and the behavior they model becomes the new norm. A vacuum likes to be filled.

In the 1980s, Madonna probably did more for the sexual liberation of women than anyone working on policy changes at the time. An entire generation was inspired by her and she became a leader to them. While she will likely always command respect and be recognized as a leader, newer generations find their own leaders that inspire them.

Companies are like living organisms that change over time. The needs of a three year old are not the same as a 17 year old or a 35 year old. Their values change based on life stage and the environments they find themselves in. Organizations change too.

Strong alignment and engagement has little to do with asserting control. In fact, it is often antithetical. Leadership is what is required, and every good leader understands that their influence comes from their followers, not from any perceived position of control. Like any healthy interpersonal relationship, mutual respect for each party's ideas and values must exist and be taken seriously. Gaining alignment and engagement in a company requires collaboration, not control.

Listen, lead, and share a compelling vision. Resist the urge to think that being higher in the organization gives you inherent control or influence over those who work for you. You may be able to get people to do what you want, but that isn't real alignment or engagement.