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All companies have pain points during growth or stabilization phases, so leaders face two critical questions: Where are they, and how can we ease them? There is now an evidence-based model to help business leaders confront these issues more efficiently and effectively. It starts with understanding the “joints” in a company’s anatomy — joints being areas where strategic and tactical components in an organization intersect and are thereby particularly vulnerable to friction or bottlenecks.
Anatomy Of Organizational Alignment
To understand these pain points, I led a research group that conducted a three-year study of leadership and organizational dynamics, culminating in The Loneliness of Leadership (purchase required). Our research found that high-performing companies routinely — almost religiously — focused on defining and aligning four crucial joints, or components, of company performance. Called the Performance Matrix, this model identifies Purpose and Values as the drivers of Strategy and Goals, which in turn lead to an organization’s Structure and Tactics, which finally delineate Metrics and Outcomes.
This Performance Matrix can also serve as a useful diagnostic tool to isolate specific pain points within departmental teams across an organization. The trick is to assess candidly the current “look and feel” of an organizational team, and subsequently plot the results against the easy-to-read diagnostic template given below. Indeed, the way a company appears and acts often reveals important insights about its likely pain points, or what organizational psychologists refer to as the sources of misalignment.
Diagnosing And Easing Misalignment
Misalignment can mean many different things within or across teams, and it may vary by the size or growth of a company. All teams and organizations face misalignment at some point — it’s an inevitable part of maturation. Efficiently diagnosing and correcting misalignment is critical to maintaining optimal performance.
The recommended steps to data-gathering inform the eventual diagnosis, and this the most fundamentally important stage in successfully remedying misalignment:
Step 1: Launch an anonymous organizational opinion or climate survey (called a “pulse survey”) at least annually, if not more aggressively on a quarterly basis. Most climate surveys stem from licensed software that over-emphasizes rating scales, very similar to the use of Net Promoter Scores, which is an index ranging from -100 to 100 that measures the willingness of customers to recommend a company’s products or services to others. However, ratings often hide nuanced and insightful information that comes from requesting team members to think and act like owners by sharing their candid, open-ended feedback. Therefore, associate or management surveys should include optional questions that ask about what a team or organization should keep doing, stop doing and start doing.
Step 2: Pair this internal data with external customer experience — or brand promise and experience — data. Again, Net Promoter Scores are important, but they don’t necessarily tell the whole story of customer experiences. Mystery shopping initiatives, systematic analysis of the themes expressed in online or social media reviews, and focus groups can be useful ways to supplement ratings to capture deeper or more nuanced understandings of consumer perceptions. The idea is to gain specific insights into how customers or clients view a department’s (or entire company’s) attitudes or behaviours (i.e., the efficiency or effectiveness of its working dynamics and service quality, combined with the mood or climate of the working environment).
Step 3: Lastly, invite the executive team together to identify the main themes from the uncensored internal and external data, and then plot them against the simple Diagnostic Graph (below). This exercise will help to clarify where, most likely, a specific team or the broader organization is experiencing misalignment across the four joints of its Performance Matrix.
In particular, the Diagnostic Graph summarizes the overall climate or working dynamics (i.e., the “symptoms” of proverbial joint pain) that tend to occur (shown on the Y-axis) when a team or organization lacks specific components of the performance model (shown on the X-axis). The “fix” for the misalignment is straightforward in concept: Fill the gap that corresponds to the organizational joint that is missing, ill-defined or poorly implemented.
The heuristics in the graph obviously can be extrapolated to diagnose more than one point of misalignment. The exact solution selected will naturally depend on a company’s precise gap(s) and the available resources, but it is recommended that leaders leverage the domain knowledge and practical expertise of human resources professionals or external consultants in performance management. These experts are best positioned, in collaboration with executive leadership, to facilitate exercises or working sessions that best “define, refine or align” an organization’s Purpose and Values, Strategy and Goals, Structure and Tactics, and Metrics and Outcomes.
Only once leaders reliably gauge the source of misalignment can meaningful, tangible and measurable actions be taken to course-correct. Maintaining alignment is a continual challenge, but the most profitable companies routinely examine and fine-tune their Performance Matrix. It is simple in principle, yet often complex and difficult in practice. The Diagnostic Graph is one way to simplify the process by guiding proper assessment, sober discussion and realistic action-planning. Many people only see what they want to see, but data-driven leaders who are intent on positive influence will look at the heuristics in the graph with candour and humility and learn at a big-picture level where to profitably “up the game.”