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  • Writer's picturejimrettew

Strategic Alignment – The Key to Organizational Success

What happens when your car is out of alignment? It pulls, right? You’re always fighting the steering wheel. You’re trying to move forward, but your car wants to go right of left. Gas mileage goes down, tire wear goes up, and you’re more tired at the end of the trip from fighting the steering wheel.

Have you experienced that with an organization? Ideally, you want both vertical and horizontal alignment. Vertically, you want everyone from the Executive Director to the receptionist to understand and act on the mission of the organization. Horizontally, you also want divergent departments to be working towards the same goal. All employees, regardless of where they sit in the organization, should have a direct line of sight between what they do on a daily basis and how it affects the organization’s mission.

How’s your alignment? If I asked five different staff members, would they be able to articulate a similar organizational vision? Would they be able to say how they specifically contribute to achieving the mission?

Through my firm CivicMakers, I often hear about misalignment problems. We each play out visions in our head about the organization’s direction. This creates our own implicit set of “rules of the road” that dictate how we and everyone else should act. However, when someone violates these rules, we get confused and angry. If the Executive Director thinks we’re going to L.A., the COO thinks it’s San Francisco, and the Director of Programs thinks it’s San Jose, then when someone makes an unexpected turn, the other two say, “What going on? That’s not right.” And now, we have friction.

As an organizational mechanic, here are some of the alignment tools I recommend from my toolbox: 

  • Decide who’s at the table. Which stakeholders need to be included? Which ones could derail it later?

  • Crystalize a clear mission, something that’s not too lofty or amorphous. I ask my clients, “If Grandma asked you what your organization does, would she understand the answer?” Try to keep it this simple - “We do (what) for (who) because of (why).”

  • Imagine a vivid three year vision. Again, not something vague and fuzzy, but specific. A vision is a vivid picture. Describe the picture in your head. What would I see, hear, and feel? Not ten years from now, but in a manageable three years.

  • Decide targets and metrics. Specify a target and a unit of measurement to gauge it. Your metric should be easily understandable and easily trackable. It should incentivize positive behavior and be within your control. Think of metrics as your calibration tools.

  • Get tactical alignment. All your programs, activities, events, marketing, and spending are focused on the same few priorities that will achieve the majority of your vision.

  • Align internal processes and skill sets. All of your job descriptions, performance reviews, and training should clearly link to your mission and vision. 

  • Create a feedback loop, a way to continually measure and correct your alignment as it inevitably goes astray. 

Like most preventative maintenance, we are prone to put it off. If the car’s not shaking, then why bother to fix it? But as you know from your own experience, if you don’t deal with it proactively, you’ll eventually deal with it down the road at a much higher cost and inconvenience. Better to do a preventative tune-up than a costly emergency repair later.


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