Sustaining business performance through growth: Developing Organisation Alignment
For SMEs and larger businesses that are growing or going through significant change, the challenge of sustaining business performance whilst generating new business, managing a brand, building a team and delivering high quality products or services can be hard to navigate. For business leaders who have tried to grow and found a direct, negative impact on business performance, the familiar fundamentals of insufficient cash flow, cumbersome product development and unpredictable market conditions are cited as the cause, but inattention to organisational attributes are just as likely to be the cause of deteriorating performance through growth. We keep looking at why this is and how it can be addressed by developing organisation alignment.
Every stage of growth or change requires your team to be clear, aligned and motivated to sustain outstanding performance through uncertainty. Maintaining alignment with the businesses vision and goals whilst balancing the preservation of good working practice and establishing new ways of doing things can be challenging if not distracting and this often starts to erode organisational performance.
You can find plenty of material that define a ‘high-performing team’ or ‘employee engagement’ and a quick comparison will provide you with a core set of ingredients. However, as your team grows there are a few organisational attributes that provide the anchor for sustaining high performance. At Blackmore Four we define these as Shared Purpose, Aligned Expertise and Mutual Empowerment. This article, the second in a series of three, looks at the topic of Aligned Expertise or Organisation Alignment.
What is Aligned Expertise?
Organisational Alignment is not a subject that starts and ends with a company vision and purpose. We have written before about the need for shared purpose, and certainly creating an environment where all members of the team are aligned around a shared purpose is extremely important. However, here we distinguish that from the additional requirement of having every member of your team fully aligned in the context of their work, skills and capabilities. This can be outlined in four ways:
1. Employee expertise aligned with their individual roles
Most business leaders by now will be well versed in recruitment methods that help them assess a candidate’s ability to perform their role. However, in businesses that are growing or going through significant change, how many leaders stop to reassess the requirements of a role AND reassess the incumbent’s ability to fulfil that role now that it has changed significantly along with the rest of your business?
2. Employee expertise aligned with their goals or objectives
We still find common practice of business leaders hiring for skills/capabilities that are deemed critical or missing but then wait until someone is performing a role before clarifying the alignment of that person with the goals or objectives of the business. In growing or changing organisations, what might have been an obvious gap in capability today, might not actually be so critical in 12 months’ time, so having a future-oriented review of how people align with outcome is crucial.
3. Employee expertise aligned with their team
An area where we see most organisations over-looking alignment is in the consideration of how employees fit into teams. It is easy to draw a structure of how the organisation looks and group people into teams based on where they are based or what they do, however, high-performing teams rely on careful analysis of what’s needed and assessment of how each participant can contribute in order for the team system to work. In this area of alignment, it is easy to draw on old sports analogies for comparison and we increasingly see (regardless of your team sport/game of choice) that simply having the ‘best’ person in each role, with the same ambition, doesn’t always equate to success. You must pay attention to how each person’s expertise compliments the team effort.
4. Employee expertise aligned with their organisation
For an organisation to be effective, the attention paid to ensuring employees are aligned within teams must be equalled by attention to ensuring employees are aligned between teams. In businesses where leaders are able to simply identify their organisation as one team, in a practical sense, then this topic overcomplicates matters but one key feature of growing and/or changing organisations is that the team construct is evolving to fit the business and in most cases, this involves more than one team within your business. Ensuring one teams’ effort are not undermined by counteractions by another team may seem obvious but is sometimes a symptom of things moving at fast pace.
The performance of your business relies heavily on the effectiveness of your organisation – ‘an organisation’s ability to meet intended business outcomes in a deliberate way, understanding and making best use of the component parts of the organisation as well as the interactions within it, whilst being prepared and equipped to adapt to the demands of your future.’ This definition relies on each member of your team being motivated to contribute to the organisation’s success and, critically, understanding how they contribute and what business success is. Employees who can engage with their work and their working environment are more likely to contribute to an effective organisation if their effort is aligned within and between teams, based on a sense of togetherness and common values that steer the organisation towards ongoing, sustained achievement of shared goals.
So, what happens when you don’t have alignment? What is the issue if you don’t organise effectively for and around the expertise people bring to work? It may not always be obvious but there are some dysfunctions of team and organisation that happen when you have misaligned expertise.
I think anyone reading this will appreciate the consequences of misaligning employee expertise with their role but for the sake of clarity and completeness, that’s when performance at an individual level is likely to be an issue. If the person you assign to a role doesn’t have the skills and capabilities to perform the role … then you’ve got the wrong role for that person. In circumstances of change and growth that may not be uncommon but it’s worth considering the knock-on effect of having that situation, usually resulting in low morale or motivation from the incumbent, frustration or dissatisfaction from colleagues and a need for ongoing management time to address the performance gaps as well as the inevitable noise generated as a result.
When employee expertise is misaligned with goals or objectives you tend to get this manifestation of greatness applied in completely the wrong direction. It’s hard to be critical of greatness but if expertise is not channelled and directed towards the business priorities – the goals you have determined are important for your business’s success – then all that greatness goes to waste. Again, that results in a significant amount of dissatisfaction for the incumbent, who despite using their skills to best effect, can’t seem to get anything right – and to fellow colleagues who have likely heard praise for what people in this situation can do, what they add to the team, but are likely never seeing the true value of their colleagues.
Which brings us nicely onto the third scenario … what happens when expertise of an employee is not aligned to their team? Usually we see a negative climate develop out of misalignment with each other, possibly contributing skills or capabilities that others feel overlap with their contribution or possibly in some way undermine that or even in the less confrontational environment where so-called teams are actually just working in groups – performing their own roles independently of co-workers. Whilst the latter scenario seems less toxic, the danger of running a business with individuals working in entire isolation is of passive inefficiency or ineffectiveness that erodes your collective ability to achieve your goals.
When employees are aligned within their teams but not between teams – a misalignment between employee and organisation – the development of a complex organisation may start to look and feel out of control. The classic signs often include leaders starting to compare team performance and hold one team up as the A team whilst putting the ‘B’ team down in comparison. Developing a sense of competition is not completely unhelpful but in the absence of ensuring teams are equipped to contribute to the overall ambitions of the business, all this does is create winners and losers…and whilst this may spur on effort, it will always create a comparable sense of worth and value…someone always loses. Furthermore, even in the absence of raw competition, it never amazes me to hear how many stories people have about the finance department, the sales team, the HR people, them in IT (or anyone that’s not in your city/country!) not understanding the business, not understanding how things should be done, not being aligned with the core capability of the business.
So how relevant is this and what should we do about it? How can we develop aligned expertise?
At Blackmore Four, we think this is relevant for organisations that are trying to improve or sustain organisational effectiveness whilst going through significant growth or change. There are countless stories of what goes wrong when expertise isn’t aligned and like all critical aspects of successful business, it takes leadership and time to address those issues or prevent them from ever happening. We think that by following these steps:
- Hire for and develop skills that are determined necessary for your business through robust analysis. We think it’s worth the effort, not just to consider where your pain points are now but to really analyse what expertise is critical for achieving your goals in future.
- Endeavour to make accurate assessment of the expertise at your disposal on a semi regular basis. People develop expertise in a manner of different ways, not all of which are through their employment and not all of which will be evident to you if you haven’t needed them before. Don’t make assumptions or subjective assessments about the capabilities at your disposal.
- Implement change in the development and deployment of expertise with a ‘win : win’ mentality, pursuing all opportunities to offer individuals and team development of skills and capabilities that are relevant to them (win!) and relevant to the business (win!) and guide development to be complementary within and between teams
- Develop simple, effective ways of evaluating the alignment between pockets of expertise that are critical for business. Beyond simple performance assessment at an individual or team level, really take a look at how the alignment of expertise is working for your organisation.
As with any organisational change, developing aligned expertise takes smart, creative thinking and serious consideration about the shape, size and type of the organisation. Leaders need to understand what expertise they have amongst their employees and when the organisation spans borders that’s a tougher job.
Aligned expertise shouldn’t be undermined by new additions to the team but is enriched by your new colleagues and helps provide clarity regarding their contribution to the team. Aligned expertise isn’t threatened by a change in objectives or goals if you are committed to re-assessing expertise and helping people develop with the changing requirements of your business.
For growing teams to thrive, mastery needs to be relevant to your organisations goals and this is what is referred to as aligned expertise. Some businesses prefer to dictate skill development and implement processes to facilitate interaction, however there is little value created from collaboration based on rules and prescribed behaviour. You are more likely to achieve successful growth by fostering relationships that respect aligned expertise.
Blackmore Four are a management consulting company, offering specialist advice and tailored solutions to businesses looking to sustain or improve the effectiveness of their organisation. Our approach is based on a deep understanding of human behaviour at work and an ability to identify and address the specific leadership and organisation development needs of your business. We work with ambitious business leaders to achieve outstanding levels of performance through periods of growth or significant change.