This post was originally published on October 17, 2016, and updated most recently on January 30, 2021.
During a visit to the NASA space center in the 1960s, 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 a valuable lesson about organizational alignment that still holds 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 like, “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 to the success of the business. That also means they aren’t connecting their everyday jobs to your company’s 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 toward a common goal. Tasks are more easily prioritized to serve the mission. And people are more motivated, knowing their day’s work serves a higher purpose.
Organizational alignment sounds like a dream, doesn’t it? Luckily, it’s also capable of being a reality.
Organizational alignment — do you have it?
To have organizational alignment, your business needs to consider four things:
If one aspect of your business doesn’t support the other, your value chain falls apart. To evaluate these parts of your business, let’s explore each.
What do we do, and why do we do it? Your purpose motivates every decision you make, from the products you release to the people you hire. Things like financial success, happy customers, positive PR are simply byproducts of fulfilling your purpose. If you don’t understand the what and why of your work, you can’t expect your organization to either.
Can each employee, investor, and customer easily relay your purpose? If not, you’ve found an excellent opportunity to improve alignment.
If you’re unsure of your businesses purpose, ask these questions:
- How are people’s lives different because of it?
- Would the world change if your business closed doors tomorrow?
- How do others describe your business?
- What would achieving your ultimate purpose look like?
How do we fulfill our purpose? While your purpose will likely remain constant, your strategy will adapt to current opportunities and threats in the market. Whether or not your strategy brings you closer to fulfilling your purpose will be how you measure success.
To evaluate if your strategy is adequately supporting your purpose, ask these questions:
- What are your current offerings (products, services, etc.), and how does each represent your purpose?
- Based on your current offerings, are there parts of your purpose that you aren’t currently fulfilling? What’s missing?
- Are any of your offerings not aligned with your purpose? How would you either adapt or eliminate those?
- What do your customers expect from your offerings? Are those expectations aligned with your purpose?
- How does your purpose differentiate you from competitors? Do your offerings reflect that?
What are we capable of? Your strategy means nothing without the resources and talent required to achieve it. Your resources may include the capital, materials, software, staff, and any other assets you can draw from.
To understand how your current resources are functioning, ask these questions:
- What are we great at?
- Where do we struggle?
- What do we need to be the best at to support our business strategy?
- Are our current strengths aligned with our strategy? If not, what are the most critical areas to improve? And how do we improve them?
You may identify opportunities in staffing, culture, work processes, or structure that are holding you back. Likewise, you may identify unique qualities your business thrives at that you want to preserve and prioritize.
How do we manage it? Managing your resources effectively so that your team can collaborate, communicate, and deliver their work determines the longevity of your success. You need the right management practices, systems, and technologies to help you utilize your resources in line with your strategy towards your purpose. It all connects!
In terms of management, ask these questions:
- What goals does your business have from a managerial standpoint?
- For each of those goals, what does success look like in the short term and long term?
- Are those outcomes in line with the business’s purpose?
- How is your business’s purpose not being supported managerially?
- How is your business’s strategy not being supported managerially?
- What goals could you introduce to close any gaps?
We recommend asking all of these questions, not just of yourself but of your entire team. You can direct this line of thinking towards the business overall or single out a particular offering or function.
Once you’ve evaluated your business in terms of purpose, strategy, resources, and management. It’s time to align your staff from the bottom up with the four levels of organizational alignment.
The four levels of organizational alignment
Having your purpose, strategy, resources, and management aligned is a great start. From a high-level standpoint, the structure is there. But we can’t discuss organizational alignment without also approaching employees on a one-to-one basis. Each employee must align with their role, goals, team, and organization. This is where the four levels of organizational alignment come in.
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. Frequently, 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 have it can do the job. Add assessments or mock assignments into your interview process. That way, your hiring decisions and performance are already in sync.
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 most significant 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 they are run correctly, can also be a valuable 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, remember to do it regularly.
Set up check-ins
Just like a manager would with any other employee performance review, you can set up regular meetings to check-in on alignment. Together, you can discuss any personal goals to help stay on track with the mission, share any ideas for the company or team, and make sure they also see the company delivering on its promises.
Lead by example
As the manager or project manager, make sure that you’re setting a good example for your team. Actively make decisions that align with the company’s goals and missions and make sure to frequently share related updates and news with your team. That way everyone knows what proper alignment looks like and knows that they’re in good hands.