Imagine an organisation in which everyone works together, collaboratively and enthusiastically, to achieve a common and worthwhile goal. Ultimately that’s one key purpose, perhaps the key purpose, of organisations — to coordinate effort and expertise to achieve a common purpose. Imagine an organisation where the efforts of every person contribute to the same (or compatible) worthwhile outcomes. Imagine an organisation in which all of the practices and procedures, formal and informal, have the same effect.
How many organisations do you know that fit that description? And how might an organisation become like that? I’m hoping that this document might be the start of a conversation about that.
A few years ago I had the pleasure of working in a high-performing organisation of several hundred people. Its purpose was to support people with a particular serious and common illness. It also raised funds for other initiatives concerned with the same illness.
I enjoyed working with them, especially because of the enthusiasm of their people. Over the course of several years I worked with a variety of them. They came from all levels of the organisation, from workface to CEO. They were from many different functions.
Almost without exception, every one of them that I worked with liked and valued their work. Part of the reason, I decided, was that they understood and believed in the organisation and its purpose. In the long term, it was to eradicate the illness that was the focus of the organisation’s efforts. In the short term, it was to make life as pleasant as possible for people with the illness.
Almost without exception the people I encountered in the organisation cherished that vision. Not only that, almost all of them understood how their own work contributed to it. They knew that their efforts helped to make the world a better place. They were pleased that it did so. For them the organisation’s vision was more than some words on a piece of paper.
That’s one form of what I call alignment. The people in that organisation, at all levels, maintained a clear line of sight from their own work to a vision of a better and worthwhile world. They knew how their actions aligned with and contributed to the goals of their team, their department, their organisation, and beyond. That sense of alignment guided their choices and actions. They knew that their actions made a difference.
I suspect that it helped that the organisation began small and grew from there. As the organisation slowly grew, newcomers learned the culture and the purpose from those already there. The CEO also played an important role. He met each person joining the organisation. He talked to each of them about his aspirations for them and for the organisation. He put effort into maintaining his relationship with them.
He talked to people as often as he could. He encouraged others to do the same. Success allowed the organisation to grow. As it did so, he no longer had the time to meet with everyone as often as previously. Instead he depended more and more on team leaders to convey the message about the organisation and its dreams.
In still larger organisations it becomes more difficult for all effort and expertise to be coordinated. The role of team leaders then becomes even more important. For many staff in large organisations, their own team leader is their main link to the organisation as a whole. The team leader is the person to help them maintain the line of sight from their immediate work to the organisation’s ultimate purpose.
As you can see, I’m thinking of alignment as something that is achieved when everything points in the same direction. There are many forms of it. A second form occurs when everything about an organisation conveys the same message, to all organisational members, about purpose. It contributes to a coherent and high-performing culture.
There are a few published examples of such organisations. I wish I had good examples I have actually encountered. In my experience it is much rarer. Many of the instances I can recall from my own experience are negative, from a range of organisations.
As I said, CEOs and team leaders have an important duty to inform their people about the organisation and its reason for being. So too do the human resources functions within the organisation. These are the point of contact for people during important transitions in their organisational experience: recruitment, selection, induction, development, promotion and so on.
Each contact between human resources people and staff is one more opportunity to convey the key messages to the staff. The staff can learn what most matters to the organisation, and how they fit in. At important transitions in work life, staff will seek meaning in what the human resource people say. And even more, they will find meaning in how the human resource people act towards them.
The question then becomes, how well aligned are the different human resource functions? How much agreement is there in what they communicate by word and especially by deed? Are the different functions aligned? Do all of them convey the same message? Does that message also agree with what team leaders communicate? And is that consistent with the organisational purpose? In my direct experience, this occurs not very often and not very well. I would be very interested to hear of organisations that do achieve good alignment between the different aspects of their human resource functions.
I may have very few examples from direct experience. I can envisage, easily, how it might be better. Of the many possible instances, here are a few …
- recruitment advertisements that communicate that the organisation values its purpose, the contribution of each role to that purpose, and the person who will serve in that role
- selection processes, including selection for promotion, that demonstrate by word and deed the qualities that the organisation values, and why
- an induction (“onboarding”) process that relates each aspect of the person’s work to the line of sight from the person to the organisation’s vision, short term and long term
- learning and development activities that help the person to better align their role to the team and organisational purpose — and to make the most of their strengths as they do so.
Each of these, and those I haven’t mentioned, is another opportunity to contribute towards high performance — towards an organisation in which all effort and expertise is aligned and coordinated.
Yet you may have noticed that I haven’t yet mentioned performance management. That’s not because I think it is unimportant. On the contrary, I think it is too important for it to be merely a formal annual chore. In my experience, in most organisations neither appraisers nor appraisees enjoy their annual or six-monthly appraisal.
At each contact with an organisational member the human resources function could — but seldom does — convey the way forward to better alignment, for better achievement of the organisation’s purpose. Even more importantly, it is the team leader who can interact daily and more often with team members. I visualise performance conversations taking place moment by moment, many of them informal. Formal performance management is mostly replaced by continuous performance improvement. Weekly or fortnightly semi-formal meetings can then supplement and support the crucial informal components.
In high-performing teams I think of performance improvement as an embedded and natural part of everyday team functioning. Over time I envisage the team working toward becoming forward looking, optimistically honest and supportive. Bit by bit the team can improve the fit between person and person, person and team, team and team, team and organisation, and team and external stakeholders. I’ve worked in just a few teams like that, and in a very few small organisations. They were exciting places to be.
How many teams like that do you know? In the teams you have worked in or encountered, how much of that has that been achieved, and how often?
When it is achieved, human resources people then can adopt an important support role. They can equip team leaders and team members with the skills to make performance conversations frequent, enjoyable and valuable.
In summary, alignment in both the forms discussed above can have an important signalling function — to everyone. The goal is for every member and team within an organisation to develop and maintain a clear line of sight from their present efforts to the better world they pursue.
Regular communication between team members and team leaders, supported by human resources, is an achievable and important course of action for achieving this. I welcome any examples, positive or negative, that you can contribute from your experience.