Thursday, April 7, 2011

Alignment Comes Before Vision

Typical management methodology has leaders develop a vision and then work within the organization to build alignment around it. The order is backwards; before creating vision, create alignment.

As I said in my last post, I'm offering a viewpoint counter to prevailing wisdom about strategic leadership. Not only am I advocating abandoning strategic planning methodology entirely, but many of the foundational management principles upon which it is based. This includes the ubiquitous "strategy pyramid," which has at the top "vision/mission" working down to goals, objectives and action plans.

Vision is not at the top of my strategic leadership pyramid, and goals, objectives and action plans aren't on it at all (read my previous posts if you want to know why).

So, if you don't have vision at the top, then what the heck are followers "aligning" around, you might ask? Aspirational culture. Organizational culture dominates behavior. What's more important than where we're going is how we intend to work together to get there. To create a strategic organization, we need to reverse the order: first create alignment, then create vision.

Knowing this, our first order of business ought not to be choosing our destination port, but making sure the crewmembers have shared values about how we're going to work together on the ship. We don't want to discover we have the ingredients for a mutiny in place after we've already set sail.

In Good to Great, Jim Collins explains that the companies that made the transition from good to great focused first on who (alignment), then what (vision). Getting the right people on the bus first was more important than having the right business strategy. As he put it, in a great organization, people want to be on the bus because of who else is on it. Or, to say it another way: it's about the journey, not the destination.

One thing (among many) that differentiates strategic alignment methodology from strategic planning methodology is keeping in the forefront “who, then what.” This means before even coming up with strategy, first examining whether we have alignment in relation to how we work together.

In my post Beyond The Plan: A New Approach to Strategic Leadership I offered a well-known quote often attributed to Peter Drucker: "Culture eats strategy for breakfast." And proferred that, like individuals, organizations have personalities, which we commonly refer to as "organizational culture."

How often do strategic planning efforts fail due to lack of execution, organizational culture, etc.? Afterwords, leaders wring their hands trying to figure out how they could have better communicated the vision, overcome the cultural hurdles and employee attitudes about the strategy. They engage in futile "change management" exercises, etc.

The problem is they’re trying to “reverse engineer” the personality and unwritten rules of the organization, taking apart what they have, trying to rebuild it to fit the vision. That’s hard work -- quite often futile -- and I’m not a fan of working harder, but working smarter.

The reason we want to take time to clarify organizational culture -- the rules of engagement --first, then align vision to organizational culture is 1) it's a lot less work and 2) people will intuitively act in alignment with the vision if it aligns with the culture. In other words, they will act in alignment with organizational vision and strategy automatically if they're aligned with "the way we do things."

If "the way we do things" is destructive or dysfunctional, before attempting vision, leaders need to work on building the aspirational culture.


  1. I enjoyed this post. There is a definite shift in the business mentality going on in the world right now, and this is exciting to see. With an increased business atmosphere of collaboration and cooperation, I think we will continue to see greater strides in business efforts to positively affect the world around us. I am hopeful that we will be seeing more and more organizations move away from a "bottom line" mentality and move more towards a mentality of giving back. I think we are seeing this more and more as organizations focus on bringing together, or aligning, the right people. This collaborative environmental culture is opening up completely new business models and ventures. It's exciting to be a part of.