Tag Archives: strategic

Lack of Alignment is an Organizational Disease. Here are the Symptoms.

Streamlines on a field. Created using the pracma package in R.

Like a champion rowing team, your organization needs to make sure everyone is working together, engaged in synchronized work and active collaboration, and not working at cross-purposes.

But like risk management, working on alignment can seem like a luxury. No one really has time to slow down and make sure everyone’s moving in the same direction. And besides, alignment just happens naturally if each functional area knows what they’re supposed to be working on… right?

Neither of these statements are, of course, true. Synchronizing people and processes – and making sure they’re aware of the needs and desires of real customers instead of cardboard personas – takes dedicated effort and a commitment from senior leaders. There are other critical impacts too: lack of alignment negatively impacts not only project outcomes – but also professional relationships and the bottom line.

An Example of Diagnosing Misalignment

Although alignment is a many-to-many problem, and requires you to look at relationships between people in all your functional areas, a January 2018 survey from Altify examined one part of the organizational puzzle: alignment between sales and marketing. This is a big one, because sales teams use marketing materials to understand and sell the product or service your company offers. Their survey of 422 enterprise-level executives and sales leaders showed that:

  • 74% of marketers think they understood customer needs, but only 44% of sales people in their organizations agreed
  • 71% of marketers think sales and marketing are aligned, but only 59% of sales people in their organizations agreed

These differences may seem small, but they reveal a lack of alignment between sales and marketing. One group thinks they “get it” – while people in the other group are just shaking their heads.

Symptoms of Misalignment

…include things like:

  • Vague Feelings of Fear. Your organization has a strategic plan (knows WHAT it wants to do), but there is little to no coordination regarding HOW people across the organization will accomplish strategic objectives. You know what KPIs you’re supposed to deliver on, but you don’t know how exactly you’re supposed to work with anything in your power or control to “move the needle.”
  • Ivory Tower Syndrome. You’re in a meeting and get the visceral sense that things aren’t clear, or that different people have different expectations for a project or initiative. But you’re too nervous or uncertain to ask for clarification – or maybe you do ask, but you get an equally unclear answer. Naturally, you assume that everyone in the room is smarter than you (particularly the managers) so you shut up and hope that it makes sense later. The reality is that you may be picking up on a legitimate problem that’s going to be problematic for the organization later on.
  • Surprises. A department committed you to a task, but you weren’t part of that decision. Once you find out about it, the task just may not get done. Alternatively, you’ll have to adjust your workload and reset expectations with the stakeholders who will now be disappointed that you can’t meet their needs according to the original schedule. Or maybe work evenings and weekends to get the job done on time. Either way, it’s not pleasant for anyone.
  • Emergencies. How often are you called on to respond to something that’s absolutely needed by close of business today? How often are you expected to drop everything and take care of it? How often do you have to work nights and weekends to make sure you don’t fall behind?
  • Lead Balloons. In this scenario, key stakeholders are called into projects at the 11th hour, when they are unable to guide or influence the direction of an initiative. The initiative becomes a “dead man walking” that’s doomed to an untimely end, but since the organization has sunk time and effort into it, people will push ahead anyway.
  • Cut Off at the Pass. Have you ever been working on a project and find out – somewhere in the middle of doing it – that some other person or team has been working on the same thing? Or maybe they’ve been working on a different project, but it’s ultimately at cross purposes with yours. Whatever way this situation works out, your organization ends up with a pile of waste and potential rework.
  • Not Writing Things Down.You have to make sure everyone is literally on the same page, seeing the world in a similar enough way to know they are pursuing the same goals and objectives. If you don’t write things down, you may be at the mercy of cognitive biases later. How do you know that your goals and objectives are aligned with your overall company strategy? Can you review written minutes after key meetings? Are your organization’s strategic initiatives written and agreed to by decision makers? Do you implement project charters that all stakeholders have to sign off on before work can commence? What practices do you use to get everyone on the same page?

How do you fix it?

That’s the subject for more blog posts that will be coming this spring – as well as what causes misalignment in the first place (hint: it’s individual behaviors on an organizational scale). The good news is – misalignment can be fixed, and the degree of alignment can be measured and continuously improved. Sign up to follow this blog so you don’t miss the rest of the story.

What other symptoms of misalignment have you experienced?

How to Prepare a Good SWOT

doug-feb2

(Image credit: Doug Buckley of http://hyperactive.to)

SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) is a strategic planning tool, originally developed by Albert Humphrey of SRI in the 1960’s, to clarify an organization’s capabilities within a particular competitive environment. It’s not just a useful technique for business… I encourage many of my graduate students to use SWOT to better understand the context of their thesis problem or capstone project. SWOT is also a popular tool for quality professionals – the ASQ Service Quality Division maintains an introduction to SWOT on their web site.

However, it is REALLY EASY to do a BAD SWOT. If you try to use a bad SWOT to support your strategic decision making, it’s very likely that you’ll draw conclusions that are inconsistent (at best). The worst case scenario is that your SWOT can lead you to totally incorrect conclusions – and interventions or strategic decisions that damage your organization, rather than support and grow it. In a collaborative situation, it’s easy to deliver a BAD SWOT, especially when you genuinely wish to acknowledge all voices – and this wish is coupled with a tight schedule to deliver the SWOT.

How do you prepare a GOOD SWOT? Here are the four tests I ask my students to perform on each and every point within the SWOT analysis:

  1. Is the point supported by data or a reference in the literature? It’s easy to let anecdotes or personal opinions slip in to a SWOT. Requiring that all points are supported by data or research helps; personal opinions must be captured carefully (e.g. survey results over a representative sample of the population).
  2. Does the point address the issue at the right scale? If you are analyzing strategy for your organization as a whole, you don’t want your individual SWOT points to address the division, product-line, or product level – unless you can make a clear case for how your point impacts the scale of the whole analysis.
  3. Have you accounted for variation? Not everyone will agree with all points. One way around this is the poll the stakeholders within an organization (at the appropriate scale) to determine whether they strongly agree, agree, disagree, etc. with each point. Prioritize the items according to greatest agreement.
  4. Do you know why the point should be classified as a strength, weakness, opportunity, or threat? Sometimes a threat or a weakness is an opportunity, when considered in the context of the strengths; try to make connections between the four quadrants by considering these relationships.

And in addition, it’s important to do this final test at the end of the SWOT:

  • Do any of the points directly conflict with one another? If so, REMOVE THEM.

Here are some real (modified) examples extracted from real SWOTs (to show you what I mean). Feel free to add your own guidelines to the Comments about what makes a GOOD SWOT.

 

Strengths

Our headquarters is beautiful. This statement fails primarily on #3 and #4. Does everyone agree that the headquarters is beautiful? Probably not. But if they do, why should this be considered a strength? Do we have evidence that a beautiful headquarters contributes in any way to our organization’s ability to meet its strategic goals? A simple link should be made explaining why this is relevant as a strength.

The number of new customers is increasing. This statement is OK, but should be supported by data, a check to make sure that data is at the right scale, and an explanation of why this is a strength. “The number of new customers has been steadily increasing over the past 5 years, from 600 new customers in 2007 to over 8,000 new customers in 2012. Demand for our services across the organization is strong.”

Two thirds of our budget goes to supporting our consultants. So what? Why is this a strength? How do we compare to other organizations that also allocate budget to supporting consultants? Does this indicate that our funds are being prioritized properly? Maybe this in, in fact, a weakness – but we won’t know it until we compare ourselves to benchmarks.

 

Weaknesses

We don’t acknowledge or discuss our weaknesses. This point is weak on all four criteria. If this is a true statement, what data do we have that supports it? Are such conversations lacking at the organizational level, the division level, or the team level (or all three)? Most significantly, which one of those levels is relevant to the SWOT at hand? Does everyone feel this way, or is there some variation in the sentiment? Furthermore, is this really a weakness? I’d say it is potentially more of an opportunity to stimulate wider discussion. Can we position this statement as an opportunity instead? I also find it funny that this is a weakness in a SWOT that is specifically designed to encourage acknowledging and discussing weaknesses. Hmm.

Our technology organization is decentralized. This point fails on all criteria except #2. How is the technology organization decentralized, and why is this a weakness? Comparison to benchmarks of organizations with centralized vs. decentralized technology is merited here. For some organizations, decentralization of technology services in fact makes it easier to achieve high levels of customer service.

Nationally, there is low or declining confidence among employees of their executive management teams, particularly in larger companies. OK, this one fails on all four criteria. First, where’s the data? Second, this is totally outside the scale of the organization, and I’m not sure what relevance it has to the organization completing the SWOT. Furthermore, there’s definitely an issue of variation here: what’s the variation in the opinions among employees here? And finally, why is this a weakness? It might actually be a threat.

 

Opportunities

Globalization provides opportunities for international experiences for our consultants. According to what data? And what opportunities are relevant to our people? Do all of our consultants need international experiences, or do we just want to make it possible for the ones who are interested to get such experience? Is this an opportunity across the organization, or maybe just for our consultants who we are assigning to projects for which international experience is appropriate?

We are competing with other organizations for top-quality entry level employees. How do we know that we’re competing? Are we defining this opportunity at the right scale – that is, are we competing across the organization, or maybe just for one or two key products or product lines? Furthermore, is this really an opportunity? Seems it might be more of a threat.

We should leverage our high demand. OK, fantastic… even more fantastic if you can reiterate the data that justifies that claim, and make sure that the data is on the appropriate scale. But why? Why should we invest the time or resources in leveraging this demand? Towards what goal are we reaching here? And do our defined strengths point to ways how we can accomplish this?

 

Threats

The human capital threat. Retirement of knowledgeable and qualified people are on the rise. Fails on all four criteria. How do we know retirements are on the rise? How do we know those retiring people are qualified (maybe it’s good that they’re leaving, and we have room for new blood and new ideas in our organization – meaning this would be an opportunity). Perhaps the real threat is that we’ll lose their institutional knowledge. And if so, is this across the board, or just in one division or product line?

Population growth of our consultant pool undermines the rigor with which they are solving problems. Senior consultants are spread too thin. This statement is a tricky one, because it’s assuming a cause and effect relationship: the pool of internal people is growing, so the mentors are stretched thin, and so the teams aren’t able to solve problems with such high levels of rigor. How do we know that this causal relationship exists? In addition, how do we know that it results in less rigorous solutions?

We may have utilized all available, qualified, local part-time staff in the community. Again, this is an example where the data is key, and it’s not provided. How many people do we have? How many people do we need? What are our projections, across the organization, for how many people we’ll need in the future? This may not be a problem or a threat at all, unless our plans for growth and the ability of the local community to support that growth are not aligned. More analysis is needed.

 

Direct Conflicts

I recently saw the two statements below in a SWOT for a university, conducted at the university level. First, as a strength: “Our intercollegiate athletic programs add value.” Second, as a weakness: “The athletic funding model and return on investment are questioned.” In addition to being in direct conflict, there is no data provided, and there is no assertion of why this is a significant issue. I can guess, but I don’t want to. I want the data to guide me to my conclusions!