Leader as Organizational Architect, Part 1
It’s impossible for an organization to orchestrate the actions of each individual, as the situation “on the ground” changes monthly, weekly or even hourly. Impossible, and not even desirable. The organization’s supervisors and front-line workers want and need to make their own decisions in ways that they interpret to be best for the organization. To create alignment, leaders need to play a role as the organizational architect.
So how do you, as a leader in the organization, ensure that those thousands of micro-decisions, taken as a whole, move the organization in the right direction? You make sure your systems, structures, processes and culture are all in alignment. They all support your strategic intent. When they do, something beautiful happens, which we’ll talk about in the next post.
For this post, let’s talk about misalignment. Misalignment is often easier to recognize, in part because, unfortunately, it’s far more common than alignment.
Misaligned Organizational Architecture Slows Execution
As competitive strategy evolves at an ever-faster pace in response to faster-changing business environments, organizations often find their systems, structures, processes and culture aligned to an old, out-of-date strategy. Those systems, structures, processes and culture are the “nature” of the organization. As our good friend and colleague, Rick Tate, once said, “Nature bats last.”
When the architecture is misaligned, people tend to default to old habits. There’s too much friction in the organization. People do what they are rewarded for, or avoid doing behaviors that are punished, even if those actions are misaligned with the strategy. As a result, their work isn’t as productive as it should be. The nature of the organization trumps its strategic intent. As a result, execution of the strategy is inconsistent, slow and unresponsive to rapid changes in the competitive environment.
It’s easier to see the symptoms of misalignment than it is to identify exactly what is misaligned. For example:
- A supervisor in a factory resisted a change to his production line. Everyone else in the organization understood and supported the change, yet it took several months for the supervisor’s line to fully integrate the change. Why? Because, even though the company was much better off, the supervisor was concerned his bonus what going to be negatively impacted by the change – so he resisted as long as he could.
- A general manager in another company we worked with was asked to integrate more effectively with a sister division. He fully understood it was the right thing to do. And his bonus incentives rewarded him for doing it. “But,” he told us, “My boss has told me that I keep my job is based on how my operation performs.”
- Sales and service reps in another company we worked with were paid based 100% on their individual performance. The strategy of the company, once focused on simply acquiring as many customers as possible, evolved into delivering superior service to its customers. This change required those reps to coordinate with each other. But their compensation unequivocally rewarded individual accomplishment. Until the compensation changed, the behavior wouldn’t change.
Why Leaders Struggle with Aligning the Architecture
In each of these cases, the companies suffered from organizational friction. In each case, they tried to live with it rather than fix it, until the friction became almost unbearable. That’s understandable. Fixing misalignment often requires a fundamental shake-up in how an organization goes about its business. That’s difficult for any number of reasons:
- Sometimes, leaders don’t even see the friction that’s created by misalignment in the organizational architecture;
- Other times we’ve seen leaders who implicitly accept the systems, structures and processes that exist, not recognizing the role they could or should play in changing them. It’s a little like living next to the train tracks…you don’t hear the sound of the train anymore; yet, anyone who visits can’t miss the sound; and
- It can be frightening to start meddling with the systems, structures, processes and, especially the culture. As a leader, it’s hard to feel confident about a change that by its nature is unfamiliar to everyone in the organization. The benefits occur in the future while the discomfort of change will be felt today. (Another one of the short-term/long-term trade-offs we’ve discussed before.)
And yet, when you are the organizational architect and align a system, structures, processes or culture that had been out of whack, the results can be as immediate and dramatic. It’s like the alignment you feel that stops your car from pulling to the left the moment you leave the repair shop. Execution of your strategy just begins to flow when your systems, structures, processes and culture are aligned to it.