During a visit to the NASA space center in the 1960’s, President John F. Kennedy approached a janitor carrying a broom and introduced himself. He said, “Hi, I’m Jack Kennedy. What are you doing?”
“Well, Mr. President,” the janitor responded, “I’m helping put a man on the moon.”
This often-cited story holds an important lesson about organizational alignment that still holds true today: every person’s work, no matter how big or small their role, contributes directly to the mission of your company.
Most people probably would have answered Kennedy’s question with something to the effect of “Just sweeping up,” and chances are if you approach your employees/coworkers today with a similar inquiry, they’ll give you their equivalent.
The problem with answers like “sweeping up,” “answering emails,” or “updating this spreadsheet,” is that most of the time, employees aren’t thinking about how these tasks directly contribute the success of the business. Which also means they aren’t connecting their everyday tasks to your companies larger goals. The importance of this connection can’t be overstated.
When your team embraces the perspective of the NASA janitor, incredible things can happen. Teams work more effectively towards a common goal. Tasks are more easily prioritized to serve the mission. And people are more motivated knowing their day’s work serves a greater purpose.
It’s time we resolved this alignment issue once and for all using the four levels of organizational alignment.
1. Employee to role alignment
As every manager knows, finding the right person for the job is harder than it looks. And making the wrong hire costs your recruiter, manager, and team a lot of time and money. Recruiters waste time vetting, negotiating, and closing the hire. Managers and team members waste time interviewing and onboarding. And the business is affected as long as that member stays on contributing as an underperformer. Once that employee leaves, more time and resources go into finding a replacement and then getting that new person up to speed. It’s easy to see how companies can lose weeks or months to a single poor hiring decision. Total organizational alignment starts right here.
One way to avoid misaligned hires is with quality job descriptions. Oftentimes, we interview candidates for vague job descriptions that misrepresent the actual job. Once that person gets in the door, they find themselves in a position they didn’t sign up for, and performance issues follow. Make sure your candidate understands the realities and requirements of the job before they accept an offer.
Another way to ensure job fit is to test skills beforehand. Anyone can write a resume boasting years of experience, but only those who actually have it can do the job. Add assessments or mock assignments into your interview process. That way you’re hiring decisions are already tied to performance.
2. Employee to goal alignment
A quality hire can only go so far without proper goal setting. Clear expectations make it possible for employees to prioritize their work, make strategic decisions, and stay on track with the rest of the company.
Managers should help set expectations, so they can work together with their direct reports to set appropriate goals. Use regular performance check-ins for assessing progress, adjusting terms, and introducing new goals.
When it comes to setting objectives, use the SMART framework:
Specific – Specific goals should be able to answer the 5 W’s: Who, What, Where, When, and Why.
Measurable – How much or how many? How will you know when the task is complete?
Attainable – Restrict goals based on your resources and timeframe.
Relevant – Prioritize objectives that have the greatest impact on bigger company goals.
Timely – Always have an end date in mind. Ongoing tasks have no place in these goal-setting sessions.
3. Employee to team alignment
For team alignment, you need to define, measure, and track both short-term and long-term goals. Moreover, team members need to stay abreast of each other’s work. Visibility across your department will help teammates spot opportunities for collaboration and cross-functional teamwork.
Establish a way for all team members to stay up-to-date on the ongoings of their coworkers. Project management tools and group messaging apps can be a great way to create visibility, transparency, and regular communication between team members. Weekly meetings, when run correctly, can also be an invaluable time for team alignment.
4. Employee to organization alignment
Alignment needs to extend from the individual all the way up to the organization. Just as individual goals should align with team goals, team goals need to align with big-picture organizational goals. For managers to properly align their teams, they need to understand where the company is today and where it’s going.
Leadership is responsible for not just defining the company mission, but for setting company-wide goals, candidly reporting progress, and reinforcing company values and culture along the way. Town Halls, company newsletters, and quarterly meetings are just a few examples of how leadership can communicate with the organization as a whole. No matter what the means of dissemination, goals and progress need to be available to every employee at every level. Organizational alignment falls apart the second employees are met with a silent leadership team.
Unfortunately, organizational alignment isn’t like a string of dominos: you can’t just set them up and watch them go. Business goals pivot, markets change, and competitors create new challenges. Alignment across any group of people working in an ever-changing landscape requires constant communication and iteration, which is why investing in technologies and processes that automate tracking can be so helpful. Regardless of how you communicate your goals, just remember to do it regularly and often.