Struggling to create strategic alignment? You may be asking the wrong question ...

Updated: Apr 30, 2019


You just walked out of a meeting feeling tired and confused. The conversation went on for over 3 hours to discuss whether the marketing and sales teams should be merged and follow the same priorities, and whether or not they should segment customers by product lines or by geographies.


In the end, no decision was made, and you don't feel like you are closer to the solution; if anything, you feel further away from being able to make a decision.


Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

The ask from the CEO was clear: over the last couple of years, we have seen our sales performance decline, and he wants to know how we should restructure the sales and marketing teams to maximize their effectiveness and impact.


You walk up to the break room to grab a cup of coffee and start thinking about that meeting.


Why weren't we able to get aligned on what looks like a simple question? The team is good, the best you’ve ever worked with. Everyone in that room is an expert with years of experience in their respective fields and it showed during the conversation, everyone made some great points.


Still, over the course of the meeting, you kept changing your mind as new perspectives emerged. Every time you thought "Ok we got this", someone else made another point that threw you and the group into another loop.


Eventually, you ended up where you started, feeling frustrated. The only difference is that you are now a lot more informed about the pros & cons of each structure.


Then it strikes you and you almost drop your coffee as you realize the source of the problem


...


During this entire conversation, you were debating the structure, the operating model. If the company was a machine, you were debating what cogs the machine should have and how they fit together, but you never talked about what is the machine supposed to produce (ie: the outcomes).


Photo by Garett Mizunaka on Unsplash

Strategy conversations shouldn't start with structure


Let's take a step back for a second and talk about strategy.


At a really high level a strategy is made of 3 pillars:


Direction - Operating Principles - Structure


They are all important, but there is a sequence to how we should think about them. Alignment problems often arise when we focus too much on structure and lose track of the first two.


The Direction and Operating Principles should drive the Structure. Not the other way around.


It is not uncommon (if not frequent) for teams and organizations to approach the problem from the wrong angle and get stuck. The Structure, while critically important to an organization's strategy, is only a means to an end, and should remain that way.


Problems arise when:

  • We try to make decisions about the Structure without being aligned on the Direction or Operating Principles that the Structure is supposed to serve

  • Or when the Structure becomes a constraint that drives how an organization thinks about its Direction or Operating Principles


The Framework


So let's have a quick look at this simple framework and provide some further context on its three pillars:


Direction - Operating Principles - Structure


To make those concepts as concrete as possible, let's use a metaphor and pretend that our organization is a fleet of vehicles.


The Structure is how the organization is set up, what core capabilities it relies on to fulfill its promise to its customers. In our example, that means how many vehicles are part of the convoy, what kind of vehicles (cars, buses, trains, planes, etc.), and how they work together, etc.


The Structure is what enables us to go where we want to go. It doesn't tell us where to go.


The Operating Principles are the set of core values, guidelines, and beliefs that guide how we make decisions in the organization. For the convoy, some Operating Principles could be: we prioritize travelers comfort and safety over anything else, we only use clean energy, etc. Those are principles that will inform decisions we make at every step of the way, wherever we decide to go.


The Direction (or vision) is the set of outcomes that our organization aspires to deliver for our customers. A clear Direction paints a picture of how the world will be for our audience once we have generated those outcomes. In our example, it's actually the destination, how fast we get there, and who we bring there. We could decide to bring American tourists to Paris, or a group of elderly people to the local beach.


Photo by Anthony Delanoix on Unsplash

Obviously the Structure that would best serve the Direction of "bringing a group of elderly people to the local beach" would be very different from "bring American tourists to Paris".



How to reset the alignment problem


When you find yourself stuck in conversations and have a hard time finding alignment, ask yourself the question: "Are we on the same page and aligned on what our Direction & Operating Principles are?"


If you are unable to reach a decision, it's not necessarily because you lack data or competence, or that people in your team aren’t being cooperative. It may just be that you are not looking at the same problem, and you are not aligned on the Direction or the Operating Principles.


You are discussing the "How do we get there" without being aligned on the "There".


Our Structure often conditions how we think about our projects and the outcomes we can deliver. It’s normal to be drawn to discussing the structure because it’s a much easier and comfortable conversation.


However, don't let it be about what you can do given the current Structure.  


Instead think about what you should do given your Direction and Operating principles. From there, adapt the structure to best serve your Direction, not the other way around.


Do you have clarity on what your organization’s Direction is? Do you know (not assume) that everyone is aligned on that Direction?


If you don’t have a definite “yes” to both of those questions, I’d recommend that you stop talking about the structure, and instead create alignment on the Direction.

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