Like great (preferably Texas-style) barbecue, business alignment is one of those things that most people like, but they don’t necessarily know how to make it well on their own. Sometimes, instead of delicious burnt ends, you end up with, well, burnt ends. What went wrong?
Business alignment may happen quite naturally in a small business, but as a business grows it takes effort to establish and maintain. You may be in this position - your organization is committed to promoting alignment, you hear about it in management meetings, change initiatives happen, new technology gets bought to promote it.
But, a few months down the line, instead of an organization that moves as one, you feel as if everyone is pulling in a different direction. How did that happen? What went wrong? Here we look at some of the common mistakes people make when they are trying to create business alignment.
Mistake #1: Starting with technology
Don’t get us wrong, technology can be very useful to smooth the path of data. It creates the possibilities of moving up a level in planning and operational function. But we all know that many technology implementations fail. Sometimes that is because a business bought the wrong software. But it is often because they were trying to impose change on a business that wasn’t culturally ready to embrace it.
Many organizations are siloed. People in product development think the people in sales are doing a bad job because they don’t get enough prospects to understand what the product can do. People in sales wish the rest of the business were half as “customer-centric” as they say they are.
People in service delivery think the finance team is always checking up on them - and people in finance wish that service professionals would submit their time and expenses when they are supposed to, so they can send out invoices promptly.
If the business is siloed like this then it will be difficult for technology to deliver alignment because people don’t truly understand why they need to work together or what they need to do. The best place to start in this kind of situation is by developing a shared perspective and mutual understanding.
Mistake #2: Ignoring people’s fears and concerns
People have established workarounds that they get used to and even when that is no longer the quickest or most efficient way of doing something, they feel it is the way things should be done. They may have fears about working more collaboratively. They may worry that they will lose control over their work area.
Take for example someone who has learned to manage ineffably complex spreadsheets. Maybe Amy and Sanje are the only two people in the business who can operate the complex process required to link up the data from various places and do the accounts. If they are ever both off at the same time, everyone struggles. But Amy and Sanje are good with it because they know how it works. And they don’t like the idea of opening up the finance black box. They fear being replaced by automation: or maybe they just don’t like the idea that other teams can mess with “their” data.
For people in this situation, they must have an opportunity to discuss their fears and concerns. Only then can they begin to understand and trust the possibilities that alignment offers to them. They can begin to trust that the one-team approach can deliver a better result for everyone. Amy and Sanje can serve the business better and take on a more strategic role.
Mistake #3: Fighting change
People in your business may feel that the way they do things now works fine and there is no reason to change. But we have seen in many industries that when new ways of working appear and new possibilities are created, the businesses that close their eyes to that suffer.
In the past, teams tended to be much more based on location. A lot of alignment depended on physical proximity - the CFO was sitting across from the COO; the sales team could talk to product development at the water cooler.
But the world is changing and that is no longer sufficient. New processes need to be in place to ensure that people can easily access the information they need so that everyone stays on the same page.
Mistake #4: Setting nebulous target outcomes
Sometimes it is easier to start with what bad looks like. In a business that is not aligned, work gets duplicated, effort gets wasted. The customer is thrown around between departments. Handovers are clumsy and the ball of the customer is often dropped.
No customer wants to get a different story from the pre-sales team and the delivery team - “what did they promise you? Sorry - no can do.”
But what does good actually look like? This will vary according to the business or the sector that you work in. But instead of talking about business alignment as a nebulous goal, it needs to be quantified. When there is a clear vision that can be broken down into its constituent parts so that each team understands what they can do to contribute to achieving it.
Achieving business alignment provides a competitive advantage
Business alignment is more than just a buzzword. Businesses that achieve it are best placed to deliver a more unified customer experience and build stronger and deeper relationships with customers over time. That is a real competitive advantage in a challenging market.