Is the biggest challenge in business today strategic alignment?

Is it me or is the typical business system stacked against strategic alignment?

On a regular basis, I see that from the top to the bottom of organisations people compete, argue and fight for their piece of interest. People really struggle to point ourselves in the same direction.

And who are they competing against? Usually against their peers. Against the very people who they should be supporting and empowering.

Maybe this is not you. Maybe your business and people are all pointing in the same harmonious direction. But if this does ring true, maybe you are thinking that this is the way it just has to be?



The typical siloed business - a design floor.


I often hear business leaders complain about siloed behaviours but let’s be honest, our businesses are designed in ways which encourage this type of thinking.


We create divisions, departments and functions. Businesses are literally “divided”. Cut up. So we can attempt to manage them.


Because of this we often don’t give space to allow cross-department initiatives - because each department reports into different people. Are measured differently. We discourage unity. We place people within divisional boxes and pigeon hole people into focusing on goals to do with their specific part of the business. We set KPIs and SMART objectives. We push people for the numbers. We cross-calibrate them against each other. And suddenly find we are competing - not with the market. But with ourselves.

This may work in the short term. It may be measurable. It may show an ROI. But is it right? Maybe for some businesses, it is. But maybe things are changing. Maybe we need to change. Maybe deep down you know the design is floored.


Here are some questions to ask to see if you can identify symptoms of a floored business design:

  • Do you find customers getting frustrated as they are bounced from department to department?

  • Do you find your business design discourages collaboration?

  • Do you find innovation is not happening as much as you'd like?

  • Do you witness business-centric and not customer-centric solutions?

  • Do you find you are able to play in the short term but feel you are not really playing the long term game?

  • Do you find your customers do not always really have a seamless and enjoyable experience?

  • Do you find the "squeaky wheels always get the grease" (e.g. those managers who kick up the biggest fusses get what they need).


If so it might be the system which is encouraging these symptoms? Perhaps the design of things is causing division and stifling alignment?


I guess what I’m asking you is - is this “divisive” and “argumentative” way to do things the best way forward? For us? For our people? For our customers?


Think of how much time and energy is wasted with this approach! Perhaps we can do better.


This system may have worked in the past (this is, after all, an industrial revolution style model where businesses were creating commoditised goods) but in today's 'robotic revolution' of disruptive market places where technology is driving change at ever-increasing rates, we need ideas and collaboration more than ever. Perhaps we need to bring some new ideas to the table. Ideas which will help bring alignment. Systems which enable creativity.


I believe one of those is the idea of "branding". Aligning around managing meaning from the customers perspective. Not our own.



The power of parallel thinking and the ideas of Edward de Bono.


One of the most popular psychologist’s of modern times championed another way. His name is “Edward Charles Francis Publius de Bono”. He termed this way of doing things “parallel thinking” and he developed an innovative way of using it called the “Six Hats Method”. I’ve blogged on this previously here.


The six hat method causes teams to each look at a situation within a particular mode of thinking and contribute ideas. For example, when the team is metaphorically wearing the “black hat” they are contributing negative or cautious thoughts. When wearing the “red hat” they are contributing to how the situation makes them feel emotionally. And so on through 6 hats each representing 6 modes of human thought…


This is how he put it:

“There is a large and beautiful country house. One person is standing in front of the house. One person is standing behind the house. Two other people are standing at each side of the house. All four have a different view of the house. All four are arguing (by intercom) that the view each is seeing is the correct view of the house. Using parallel thinking they all walk around and look at the front. Then they all walk around the side, then the back and finally the remaining side. So at each moment, each person is looking in parallel from the same point of view. This is almost the exact opposite of argument, adversarial, confrontational thinking where each party deliberately takes an opposite view. Because each person eventually looks at all sides of the building, the subject is explored fully. Parallel thinking means that at any moment everyone is looking in the same direction.”
Edward de Bono, Six Thinking Hats

Argumentative thinking is all about winning an argument based on beating your opponent. This is detrimental because if I think of something which supports my opponent's position I will keep this to myself so that I win. The benefit of parallel thinking is that the winner is the person who contributes the most ideas. To win, I want to get all my ideas out.


In business today we need ideas. We need to promote thinking which aligns people emotionally. Thinking which builds cultures where people feel safe. We need unity of purpose - not divisions of organisations. We need space for people to collaborate together using multi-disciplined skills. We need to be purposeful and design. We need radical customer-centric ideas. de Bono’s work on parallel thinking is therefore well worth a read. And creating agile spaces in our workplaces, in our calendars and amongst our leadership team to get together to think like this, I would suggest, is key to getting alignment.



Utilising the power of Brand & Culture thinking



Me (Matt Davies) in action helping a leadership team align


In my work I often find that, although I’m wheeled in to help businesses clarify their brand strategy (e.g. help them work out why they exist beyond making money, who they serve and why it should matter and what the change is that they want to bring to the world), often, really, I’m being asked to help with their leaders alignment around these things.


As Peter Drucker once wrote “The answer to the question, What is our business? is the first responsibility of top management… With respect to the definition of business purpose and business mission, there is only one such focus, one starting point. It is the customer.”


Customer-centric "brand thinking" can help to create parallel thinking amongst leadership teams and the people who follow them. Alignment starts at the top. And it starts around the points Drucker defines. If the leaders are not aligned then it is very hard to get anyone else to align. This is why brand thinking is so important. By helping to define the purpose of the organisation from the customer's point of view and then ensuring everyone lives into it is incredibly powerful.


After a leadership team has really set its north star and defined its brand strategy, the next step is to really prove what they say. If we really exist to serve our customer then how can we make things as easy as possible for them? How can we create the most pleasurable experiences for the customer as we seek to help change their world for the better? How can we begin to communicate in an authentic way?


Aligned leadership teams continually ask questions like:

  • are we set up in these silos for our own benefit or for the benefit of customers?

  • how can we prove to our customers we really do care?

  • how can we prove to ourselves and our people we really do value the things we say we do?

  • how can we create employee experiences which encourage the behaviours we want customers to experience?

  • are we communicating our purpose to customers and our people effectively?

  • are our routines, rewards and reminders designed to encourage unity around our purpose?


These are not questions for one "division" of a business. These questions cut through all the traditional departments. And this is why we are not good at it. We are stuck in the past. When customers now need joined-up, meaningful experiences from brands they can trust.


Once a slightly more radical approach is taken - an approach based around parallel thinking and not argumentative thinking - an approach based around alignment - traction can be gained. 


Leadership teams can begin to really pull together and unite around the change they are looking to make in the world. A change which is not focused on them and their siloed part of the business. A change which is based on the customer. A joined-up approach. An authentic and genuine approach.


Initiatives can be designed by multi-disciplined aligned teams. Initiatives for customers. Initiatives for staff. Brands and cultures can be built which are authentically lived.


The idea of alignment which occurs first with the leaders can then be cascaded out to staff and ultimately to customers.



What about you?


So, how are you getting your leadership team on the same page? How are you getting brand thinking up there at board or executive leadership level? How frequently are you asking brand strategy questions? Do you have someone in the room representing the brand and customer? Or do you only have divisional heads all fighting for their piece of the interest? Are you designing a purposeful and meaningful way forward or are you firefighting inter-divisional disputes.


One thing is for sure in my mind. The old ways of the industrial revolution and divided businesses are slowly fading into the depths of history. A new agile breed of business is emerging. A new type of business full of virtual agile workers is being born.

This is my contribution to opening up this conversation.


I’ll end on a question which I'd love to hear ideas on: how can we, as businesses design and align around more unified, meaningful and purposeful customer-centric approaches?


All the best in answering that in your business...

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