Aligned teams that just know what to do

 

Alignment.

It’s a word you hear a lot in modern organisations and there’s a reason for that. It’s a good thing but there’s often not a lot of it about. When organisations and teams align – when people are agreed on what needs to be done, and why – things happen.

As the author of McKinsey report, The Aligned Organization, put it:

Achieving real alignment, where strategy, goals, and meaningful purpose reinforce one another, gives an organization a major advantage because it has a clearer sense of what to do at any given time, and it can trust people to move in the right direction

But alignment is a word which conjures up unfortunate images of heads being banged together. It also has political overtones: ‘side bar’ conversations and working the back channels. However it happens, much of the activity of modern organisations is about getting people aligned, be it to a point of view, a strategy or initiative.

 

Internal and External Alignment

It’s useful to think about two forms of alignment that modern organisations need: internal and external. Internally it’s about lining up purpose, strategy, capabilities, resources and management. External alignment is about matching the organisation’s perspective with the world beyond.

Of course internal and external alignment are connected but not as frequently or deeply as they might be. Research is one way to make that connection but that moment of opportunity is often missed.

Research helps develop the vision of where the organisation needs to be going. Revealing markets dynamics, people’s beliefs and behaviours and the shifting sands of the world helps an organisation research set its North Star.

But research is also an occasion to create internal alignment. Yet as we have argued (here and here) this is often a missed opportunity. Whatever the slickness of our slides, or the energy we put into ‘workshopping the insights’ when we do research wrong we fail to deliver what is  likely the greatest need of the team we’re working with. Legendary management thinker Peter Drucker went as far as to suggest that:

“…the task of leadership is to create an alignment of strengths so strong that it makes the system’s weaknesses irrelevant.”

Translation: An aligned team can overcome many of the obstacles put in their way.

 

Teams, Studios and Shared Experiences

A Studio is collaborative approach in which a team lives and works together in their customers world to develop strategy and action plans based on deep human understanding.

 

Our studio process has produced real impact. A business’s highest performing communications campaign in its history (Duracell). Three new products launched within 18 months of a studio (P&G Fabric Care) and a hunch turned to high street presence in a matter of months (Google).

When we launched Stripe Partners our goal was simple. Square a circle: Good, in-depth, highly rigorous research should not work against the desire of organisations to up their tempo. Thinking is not antithetical to doing.

As we’ve refined our approach we’ve been exploring why it works so well through interviews and research. (Read our Dr Ed case study)

Much of what we’ve discovered centres on the idea of teams and alignment:

 

1. Research discoveries are a process not a moment.

Insights emerge through ‘shared utterances’ – the finishing of each other’s sentences as people tease meaning and implications out of an observation.

Studios give members of a team time to explore together, arrived at meaning together, and to compare and contrast experience to dig deeper. Studios are a multi-day process of meaning making

 

2. Alignment is intersubjective: it’s something that happens between people.

Studios make research a team sport and create the conditions for people to align to each other.  A team – we’ve found – also starts to align itself to the world that the studio reveals.

People align as they make sense of the world together. That is hugely powerful.

 

3. Goal interdependence binds teams

The task of delivering something together is at the heart of what makes a team a team. The experience of working together face-to-face in modern, distributed is a binding experience.

With a tightly defined and pre-agreed goal – best worked towards together – studios ensure everyone has skin the game and a shared responsibility to deliver.

 

4. Multidisciplinary perspectives matter 
Good ideas come from the sharing of perspectives from people with different skills, knowledge and experience.

The collegial (but mildly competitive) dynamic created by a carefully selected group of senior, cross-functional representatives in a studios make this a reality.  As one client commented:

“The studio drove unified understanding of the pain points and opportunities across all brands teams and among all functions (huge win)”

 

5. Shared experiences are at the heart of alignment

Studios are effective because they give the team access to a shared body of knowledge. When people have experiences in common they create shared meaning and purpose and this is the ultimate, existential form of alignment. Attendees at studios have often noted that they have reconnected with what their role, industry or company.

PowerPoint can deliver a rational punch with solid data, but that feeling of a renewed sense of individual and collective purpose has much more profound impact and durable value.

 

6. Embodied Strategy

We believe the most effective strategies – the ones that get acted on – are not just codified and then communicated. When we instinctively know that a course of action is right because we  experienced or lived it. When we have made sense of things together and can viscerally feel it we have a strategy that, in the words of Flint McGlaughlin  “is not declared, [but] is lived into.’

As a client told us:

“[The studio] fostered a gut level intuition on what would delight this consumer, which led to passionate advocacy and stronger propositions”

 

Studios don’t consider alignment a secondary by-product of a client engagement or piece of work. They are the work.

Research acts as a mise en scène on which this alignment is achieved and helps us kill two birds with one stone. A client develops a rich-reality view of the world and individuals and teams align around what this means. Clarity on what it means for them as individuals, teams and an organisation is at the heart of what makes studios such a powerful approach.

The result is an organisation that can focus less on deciding what to do—and more on simply doing.

// Simon Roberts