Designing organizations to support human alignment

Human alignment presents a tangible opportunity to instigate shared reality as a means of achieving increased and sustained performance.

Increasing change, complexity, employee diversity and hybrid working have made alignment as a means of improving organizational performance a critical success factor. In addition to the alignment of organizational purpose, strategy and goals is the human aspect of alignment – shared meaning between people, for effective action. Organizational design and development to support this is a huge opportunity for any change practitioner who can draw on an evolved understanding of the nature, definition, scope and process of human alignment available today.

Alignment today is much more than linking purpose, strategy and goals. It is how people align with each other to deliver together. “Human alignment” is alignment between people. It is becoming an established area of practice because of the need to get it right and the emergence of innovative approaches dedicated to enabling it. 

Organizations are complex, dynamic and contain diverse people. Supporting them to align their various perspectives, experience and behaviors for organizational benefit requires conscious effort. There is simply more to align on, more quickly, and a need to carry on doing that work. 

In today’s world of ongoing hybrid interactions, people are simply less able to align with each other by themselves than they were before. A 2019 study published in the Harvard Business Review revealed virtual teammates are 2.5 times more likely to perceive mistrust, incompetence, broken commitments and bad decision making with distant colleagues than those who are co-located. They also take five to 10 times longer to address those concerns.

According to Mirror Mirror, human alignment is defined as cognitive and behavioral coherence between people that leads to effective action. Conversely, misalignment is cognitive or behavioral dissonance between people that undermines effective action. 

The behavioral aspect concerns learning behaviors, such as psychological safety and task cohesion. If a group can trust each other, they are more likely to open up to each other’s points of view. They are more able to learn from each other and include each other’s perspectives. Note that alignment doesn’t mean people need to think the same thing or even agree with each other. More diverse perspectives create more options and better decision-making.  

Cognitive and behavioral alignment is not to be confused with “strategic alignment” as set out by Jonathan Trevor in his book “Align.” Trevor explains how the strategically aligned organization has well-constructed and well-connected linkages between its purpose, business strategy, organizational capability and architecture and management systems.  

Lining up the parts of the organization like this is a central part of organizational design work, necessary for the high performing organization because people rely on these parts to be integrated in a way that informs and supports their work in implementing the strategy. But aligned people are integral to the performance of an aligned organization. 

Human alignment as an outcome

Human alignment is when people reach consensus on taking a certain path of action together so their subsequent decisions and actions line up. Fundamentally, this sits at the team level, where people have the same goals. The scope is a shared understanding of what the strategy means; its relevance to their work; how they collaborate to deliver together; how the wider organization supports their alignment; and how key insights from that shared understanding are processed as useful feedback for the wider organization. Successful human alignment between people can accelerate and improve innovation and performance.  

As a hypothetical example, if four people in a 10-person team have slightly different interpretations of how the strategy relates to their work, they would likely make decisions and take actions that didn’t quite line up. The differences can become visible when they are asked to complete a statement.  

Our role in implementing the strategy is to:

  • Make sure the customer fulfillment process works properly
  • Identify customer needs and ensure they get fulfilled
  • Deal with customers and provide seamless delivery on behalf of the organization

Are they delivering to a fulfillment process with pre-set objectives or are they asking customers what they want and then fulfilling them? Biases can be so strong that the interpretation of how a strategy applies to a team can morph over time according to the motivations of the individual.  

In the same vein, if five of those team members prioritized values of quality and accuracy and the other five felt agility and speed to market were the most important priorities, again the decisions and actions within the team would conflict.

If people inside one team were cognitively aligned about the strategy and their part in implementing it but were let down by neighboring teams who were not sufficiently connected or collaborative, this would be a failing in behavioral alignment that would undermine performance. 

Full alignment is an aspirational goal and is hard to achieve. There are potentially hundreds of incidents of misalignment between people, many of which are not significant enough to spend time discovering or addressing. But research by Box & Platts shows significant areas of misalignment pose a huge risk with potentially devastating implications: 

Problems caused by misalignment include confusion; waste of time, money and opportunity; diminished productivity; demotivation of individuals and teams; internal conflicts, power struggles; and ultimately project failure as well as resulting in time and energy spent doubting, conspiring, guessing or gossiping – when that same energy could be deployed in moving an organization forward.”

The challenges of human alignment 

Even now, some two years after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, when remote working left many organizations across the globe in a state of strategic and human misalignment, we see little attention dedicated to addressing human alignment as a root cause of performance issues, for three main reasons: 

  • It’s difficult to spot the gaps: How do people know when they are misaligned, unless it is obvious, or the gaps crop up in conversation? These days, especially with various forms of hybrid workplaces here to stay, the scope for misalignment is greater. We are less able to read discomfort in the body language of our colleagues, we have less time to reflect and see the rub and we have fewer established relationships to confront those rubs.  
  • The process of achieving alignment is still seen as sensitive and difficult: It’s all too easy for alignment attempts between people to feel more like an uncomfortable, confronting mediation that gets side-tracked with blame and baggage from the past. All people want to do is sweep conflict under the rug. It just doesn’t make it on the priority list.
  • People have not had good experiences of focused alignment attempts (unsupported): Most conversations at work are about achieving better alignment between people, through explaining, clarifying, pitching, influencing and sharing. While many conversations help, many do not, with various common setbacks:
    • People don’t have time or evidence to surface the conflicting assumptions or perspectives at play between themselves and others (per point 1, above)
    • People easily get “stuck in the weeds” by including baggage and blame from the past: “He thought a because of b.”  “I didn’t know about x until y.” “They promised 1 but did 2,” etc. This is disheartening and unproductive – deterring people from reflection dialogues in general.
    • Conversations that have alignment objectives wrongly take place on top of a conversation with another agenda, reducing momentum and focus rather than adding clarity. For example, questions like these are well-intended but only serve to derail the progress people are otherwise trying to make: “What meaning do you attach to that word?” and “How do you see the purpose of the team in relation to those priorities?” 
    • The team leader or manager is put into the position of leading the alignment process. Asking them to do this is asking them to move from a briefing role into a facilitation role. Unless the leader has good skills in this area they will lack the objectivity and position to enable open sharing. 

An intentional, data-driven process is needed 

People make sense of things through language. This is termed social constructionism and happens when people open-up to learn from each other, share meaning and align (or not). You cannot therefore, tell someone to align – it is not a one-way communication. 

People need to make sense of things, with others, on their own terms. The alignment process logically starts with discovering the common ground and differences between how people see things at work, in an anonymous survey or interview diagnostic.  

With such insights, the alignment gaps can be recognized and constructive forward-looking dialogue can close alignment gaps. This is best conducted at the team level, where participants have a common context. The dialogue is best led by a facilitator because neither the participants nor the leader(s) would be impartial (or likely skilled enough) to create the required conditions for group success: objectivity, curiosity, appreciation for dissenting views, support and challenge, trust of self and others. 

Designing alignment as a standard

This process can happen online within a half day or so, every three, six or 12 months, depending on the context. It works well when integrated with:

  • The strategic context setting activities of employee communication. The dissemination of leadership messages to clarify the non-negotiable strategic frame is the starting point from which teams can align on the relevance to their work and how they can deliver better together.
  • The role defining and skill building activities of HR so they can support leaders and managers in understanding how this process works and the role they can play between team members and the wider organization.

Depending on the size of the organization, an alignment program can comprise:

  • Briefing of leaders and managers
  • Distribution of survey links per team
  • Alignment data analysis and workshop design
  • Workshop delivery and measurement
  • Output / outcome insight analysis and distribution

Ideally, human alignment starts with the announcement of a new strategy, transformation or change process. Here are the expected outcomes of a well-managed alignment process:

  • More effective collaboration and better decisions and actions
  • More inclusive, empowering culture
  • More clarity and acceptance, engagement and ownership
  • Surfacing of rich feedback for leaders
  • Mitigation against the risks of misalignment   

Human alignment is in of itself a change proposition of inclusivity and learning. The key is recognizing that designing the conditions for human alignment is as much a part of getting to it as facilitating the conversations on it.