There is no universal definition of strategic alignment. In this post we look at why that is the case
In the last post we explored the concept of strategic alignment, noting that it is complicated and complex, and involves human experience and intent. The way in which we perceive strategic alignment is influenced by four perceptual lenses and the way in we deal with it is influenced by the four motivational drivers. Let’s first explore how the perceptual lenses we use might influence the way we see alignment.
Someone taking a formist view might try to describe alignment in terms of its structure and its constituent elements to develop categories that cover most of the situations they observe. So they might describe the elements of alignments such as strategy, process, structure, culture and so one. They might then look at relationships between two instances of a single element in the vertical or horizontal dimension or over time, e.g. corporate and functional strategy. Another aspect of alignment is the relationship between one type of element and another, e.g. strategy and process. Then they might look at the relationship between more than two elements, e.g. the well-known trio of strategy, structure and process. There are several popular maturity models in areas such as project management and software development and it is not difficult to put together something similar for alignment. One way to use such a model might be to assess the level of alignment at a certain point between organisational elements such as strategy and culture. This can help identify areas for improvement or just provide an aggregated score to compare the level of alignment between organisations.
Someone with a mechanistic orientation might further explore alignment upstream, i.e. how alignment influences organisational performance. This could be through better communication, better coordination to reduce rework and quicker ramping up when some moves from part of the organisation to another. They might also explore alignment downstream, i.e. how the actions we take influence alignment. For example, they might try to explain the difficulty in achieving alignment in terms of the law of diminishing returns. It is relatively easy to improve alignment in a situation in which it is very low, but it is much harder and less beneficial to improve an already well-aligned set of elements.
Someone taking an organicist approach might speculate on whether there is an ideal level of alignment beyond which improvements drop away or perhaps an ideal zone of alignment within which synergies are highest. They might look at whether improving alignment between one pair of elements, e.g. strategy and structure, might lead to worsening alignment in another area, e.g. culture. Or, they might explore the relationship between the maturity of the organisation in other areas and the benefits from improving alignment. The organisation may simply not have reached a point in its journey or life-cycle at which these benefits can be realised or sustained.
Someone taking the contextual approach might start with exploring whether alignment is something objective at all! When we evaluate the level of alignment as individuals, it is quite likely that our assessment is a little different from that done by someone else. One way to address this intersubjective validation, i.e. combine the assessments of a number of people. At this point several questions arise about identifying the participants and making sure that the people identified do actually participate. We’ll come back to this later when we look at forms of learning, but we are all familiar with strategy discussions in which members of a group display different levels of engagement with the discussion. Finally, when the group agrees on a way forward, is it possible to say whether the conclusions will be as valid for someone who didn’t participate in the discussion? It may be useful to reflect on a situation in which someone new became part of an existing group and over a period of time fell in with group’s approach. Perhaps the mental frame of new entrant remained unchanged and the reasoning for the conclusions became clear. Or the entrant’s frame did change in such a way that the conclusions became reasonable, i.e. the entrant ‘bought into’ the strategy (in what currency what did they make payment?).
The point of the discussion above is that the conceptual frame that one adopts, consciously or otherwise, influences what one sees and that they are all valid, even though they can lead to very different conclusions. These frames are useful because we would simply not be able to function effectively without them. Often they have become so natural that we don’t even think about them. An implication is that we do need to become more aware of the perceptual frames we use automatically, a form of learning. But we are also driven by a combination of motivational drivers and, as we have seen in an earlier post, the relative importance for each of us of these drivers is different. Let’s look at how our purpose might influence the way in which we deal with strategic alignment.
Let’s consider two stereotypical individuals, a practitioner and an academic, to see how they might prioritise the four goals: describing strategic alignment (descriptive), explaining how it works (explanatory), figuring out what to do to improve alignment (instrumental) and considering any ethical aspects alignment or improving it (normative). The typical manager is very much interested in improving the performance of the organisation for which they are responsible, so they would prioritise the instrumental goal above the others, followed perhaps by the descriptive goal because it is hard to improve something unless one can articulate clearly and precisely what it is one is trying to improve. This person may not be particularly interested in understanding the theory of how what they do influences alignment and exactly how alignment influences performance, preferring intuition or experience to intellectual rigour. And normative considerations, such as social or environmental impact, might rank last. The typical academic on the other hand is primarily interested in extending our collective knowledge about the world, so their focus would be first describing alignment with clarity and precision and then developing explanations for how what we do improves alignment and how alignment influences performance. Any interest in the ethical or practical aspects of alignment is likely to be secondary.
To summarise, when a group of individuals in an organisation, even ones that have worked together closely for a while, are faced with a problem relating to strategic alignment, each of them is likely to have a different way of looking at it and a different perspective on the best to respond to it. Of course, this is true not just of alignment, but any situation.
Is there a way to address this and if so, what is it? Before we explore that, it may be useful to first consider the observation because organisations are complicated and complex, and involve human experience and intent, there is no way we can know all there is to know. That means whatever approach we take needs to have something to do with learning; about the situation, about the other individuals involved and indeed, about ourselves. So in the next few posts, we’ll take a closer look at learning.
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