In meetings related to group decisions, strategies, and initiatives, the leader may ask those present, “Let’s get aligned.” The request may come as “Let’s get on the same page.” or “Let’s make sure we’re singing from the same hymn sheet.”
At the meeting’s close, the leader might declare, “I believe we are aligned.” Or ask, “Are we aligned?” If unsure, and suspect it’s a No, it might be asked as a challenge, “The train is leaving the station. Is anyone still on the platform?”
Then there is the genuine question, “Are we aligned?” without inflection. The command, “Let’s get aligned.” And the command masquerading as a question, “Are we aligned?” where the only politically correct response is, “Yes.”
Or, the word alignment is never mentioned, because everyone knows they’re not.
Judgments of group alignment range from the serious, “They are not aligned.” and “They’re misaligned.” to the ironic, “Well, they aren’t on the same page, are they.”
All convey the same concept; either a group is aligned, or it is not. Work alignment is binary, 0 or 1, True/False, Yes, they are, or No, they aren’t.
Business books with align and alignment in the title offer to teach ways to create alignment. Professional services firm websites explain they will get client teams, departments, and whole companies aligned.
There is no half-measure. Either you are aligned, or you are not. And not being aligned is a terrible thing. Leaders, managers, and consultants know that a group decision, strategy, or initiative is highly unlikely to succeed when the participants are misaligned.
So, leaders, sponsors, and project managers want ‘the team’ to be aligned. On a personal level, few participants desire to be viewed as an outlier, at least for too long, even if they are playing devil’s advocate.
When we ask executives and initiative leaders how they determine whether their groups are aligned, they assess it based on people’s words, actions, inaction, and written statements. It is a subjective inference.
And every person in a group, to lesser and greater degrees, is tacitly or intentionally judging alignment within and between every other person in the group. Nine people, nine subjective inferences about everyone else.
Mathematically, we can show why this is too complex to work well. A group of ‘n’ people has n(n-1)/2 pair connections. For example, a 9-member leadership team or project team means each person is trying to assess the alignment between 36 pairs.
Perhaps, at a stretch, that could be feasible if we were talking about the alignment around one statement, such as “We are good at this.” However, we find that if we ask a group of people why they are creating a new strategy, fixing a struggling transformation program, or chartering a new joint venture, they express, on average, 30 different reasons why.
So, mentally, we need to analyze 36 pair combinations on 30 opinions; 1,080 mental judgments.
When we also ask groups how they would define a successful strategy, transformation, merger – or whatever the subject is they are aligning around – they express 18 target outcomes, on average. That is another 648 pair alignment judgments by each of the nine team members.
But we are not finished. When we ask groups, “Why won’t it work?” and “How will taking action hurt others, damage other initiatives?” they express 52 concerns, on average. Another 1,872 alignment points.
When we add the “Why should you do this?” opinions to the “Success means producing this. . .” opinions and the “But it won’t work because. . .” opinions, each of the nine group members has 3,600 alignment assessments to make.
Because the number of How-to opinions in a group averages about 50, a full answer to whether or not a group is aligned involves approximately 7,000 measures by each person.
When we add into the nine-person leadership team conversations a seven-member board and thirty first-level managers, this group of forty-six has 1,035 pair connections. Being aligned now means 46 people each need to see 144,900 pair/opinion alignments.
Suppose one of those 46 people disagrees with one of the other 45 about just one of the opinions. Because alignment is binary, yes/no, 144,899 yes and 1 no, means the group is misaligned.
How can it be reasonable, therefore, for anyone to ask a group to get aligned, ask if they are aligned, or promise to get a group aligned with this all-or-nothing definition of alignment?
Let’s look at real-life situations. In over 330 strategies, transformations, programs, mergers, joint ventures, critical decisions, policy developments, process improvements, product/service innovations, and similar group topics involving Fortune 100 corporate strategy to White House policy to early-stage ventures and not-for-profits, we found the following:
Half of the groups were discussing generative, creative, advancing subjects. The other half were discussing challenged, struggling, failing initiatives. In some cases, they were asked just one or two weeks after finishing a formal, structured, strategic planning process.
Rather than treating alignment as binary, yes/no, please consider it a dynamic characteristic of a group, measured on a scale.
Using mathematics to objectively quantify a group’s Degree of Alignment we derived from Nobel prize recipient for Economics, 2005, Professor Thomas Schelling, every group was between 44 and 85 on a scale of 0 to 100. I.e., not a single group was ever fully aligned or close to it.
Of note, when we isolated the Degree of Alignment of the executives and leadership teams in 133 of the projects, only four were above 85. That number is the lowest level required for quality coordinated action. The other 129 executive groups were below it. In some cases, these were executive teams who had sponsored several-hundred-million-dollar transformations, mergers, and large-scale change programs.
These research results are why the first part of the title claims that no group was ever aligned. How can we project that forward and say no current or future group will ever be aligned?
First, if every member of that 46-person board/executives/managers group needs to see agreement across 144,900 pair/opinion combinations, it is unreasonable to expect alignment if we use the binary ‘yes/no’, ‘are/aren’t’ definition of alignment.
Second, our research data suggests it is impractical for business groups to reach complete alignment.
Take a group with 140 opinions on their topic (near the middle of the 130 to 180 range found in the research.)
It is not going to happen. Business groups do not have the time or patience for that much conversation on one topic, even if spread over a month, especially about things on which they don’t agree.
We need to stop promising to get groups aligned. Companies need to stop asking consultants to get them aligned or buy services that promise to get them aligned. It is a false claim—fool’s gold.
This practical reality is why we titled the management science, Alignment Optimization.
Alignment Optimization means creating sufficient alignment to enable quality coordinated action within the amount of time a group will invest in dialogue and the risk they will accept from their unresolved misalignments.
Despite claims of “We are aligned.”, all strategic collaborations have suffered, often heavily, a Cost of Misalignment. We now acknowledge that as a fact and proactively seek to manage it.
From now on, we should only hear, “How aligned are we?”, “Do we have sufficient alignment?” and “Let’s create enough alignment.”
The new leadership skill is determining where optimal alignment is for a particular group and topic. Something we will discuss in future posts.
If ever there was a time for high-quality coordinated action, it is now.
Stay safe, stay well.