Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Developing Intuitive Alignment

Here I’ll describe an element of strategic execution that as far as I know isn’t addressed in traditional strategic management. I call it “intuitive alignment.”

What intuitive alignment means is that a vision is internalized to the degree that a person takes aligned action intuitively. We practice it all the time, but we don’t tend to think of it as something special or an area to consider in strategic leadership/management because it’s not planned or measurable.

I gave an example of an action arising from intuitive alignment in a previous post. I described how, even though I had developed a structured plan for my career path, when an unexpected opportunity arose that I could immediately see aligned with my vision, I literally “dropped everything” and acted on the opportunity. As a result, I achieved the vision much sooner than I had written in my plan. Had I not had clarity of vision deeply internalized, I would not have been able to recognize that this was THE opportunity to realize the vision and taken the appropriate aligned actions to seize the opportunity.

In short, because I had an internalized “higher calling,” not just a plan for getting there, I was able to take aligned action that required throwing the plan aside. It meant inventing a whole new path without any past experience or reference points to go by.

This behavior – intuitively taking aligned actions – is inherent in leadership. Leaders naturally practice intuitive alignment because having an internalized vision is what makes them a leader in the first place. They know what they’re after and they act on it; they don’t need to refer to a plan or have someone tell them they should act. They just know. It’s their vision; that’s why others follow them. But those who didn’t create the vision may not inherently act with intuitive alignment.

Many times we as leaders don’t effectively communicate the vision to those who are helping us implement it. In fact, we may ask them to do things for us and they do them because they respect us and want to please, but not because they truly know why they’re doing it. And because they don’t know what we really want, they just do what they’re asked to do, not taking actions that might better serve the vision because they know the “higher purpose” we’re trying to accomplish.

Define the Higher Calling of Each Role

Even though I’m by no means a sports fanatic or a student of football, I’m going to use a football analogy only because it helps illustrate a concept. (And my apologies to any non-USA readers, whose football is a different sport. I don’t know enough about the sport the rest of the world calls football to use an analogy from it. Either way, you don’t have to understand American football to understand the analogy.)

My ultimate role as wide receiver is to clear myself of defenders, to get open so that the quarterback can throw the ball to me. Regardless of what the official play is, I know that I’ve got to get open, which may mean I’ll have to try a different running pattern if the one called doesn’t work or the defender has anticipated the play call. This is clarity of vision around my position. While I know we have a specific play planned and I intend to follow it, I also know my higher calling is to “get open” and I’ll take whatever aligned actions I need to take to make that happen.

Creating intuitive alignment in those who are responsible for just a part of the big picture requires clarifying the “higher calling” of their position. Internalizing the big vision of the organization may not be intuitively actionable for everyone, but internalizing the higher calling of their role in service to the vision is.

To continue with the football analogy, running backs know they need to find a hole to run through in the defensive line. If the offense fails to open a hole for the running back in the planned spot in the defensive line, but the running back sees another hole somewhere else, he’ll run through it. “Finding a hole” is the higher calling in his role.

When players execute on their role-based “higher calling” beyond the planned plays, the team has a much greater chance of winning the game, which is the desired outcome.

To bring the analogy back to business, if a customer service representative knows that the “higher calling” in his or her role is to “solve the customer’s problem,” then specific company procedures, while generally followed, may be ignored to serve the higher calling.

Therefore, defining the higher calling (in service to the vision) of various roles in the organization is a way for followers to internalize a role-based vision upon which they can intuitively take aligned action.