Top-team alignment is powerful. But what can you do when you know you don’t have it?
It’s not unusual for clients to tell us they have an alignment issue. In fact, it’s rare that our clients can’t identify a problem area which has something to do with alignment. The concept is so obviously important, but it’s difficult to say what alignment is without resorting to colorful phrases such as “everyone rowing in the same direction,” “singing from the same choir book,” “taking the same hill,” “running the same play,” etc.
When we hear clients discuss alignment, we see a sense-making challenge. Working with executives, we offer consulting support to understand the dynamics at play and then change them for the better. The approach builds on a core insight from systems thinking: teams are systems, with feedback loops between individuals who dynamically influence each other.
Kenning founder Mark Ledden answers questions about this consulting approach.
Q. How do you get started when helping a client with an alignment challenge?
Mark. “When trying to adjust or enhance a system, the first step is to define the scope of the system in question. Any researcher looking at a natural system, like an ecosystem, would do the same. So we ask, what group of people are we looking at? A working group? A set of direct reports? A board of directors? The second step is to create a map of the agents in the system and the dynamics between them. While the map of team dynamics will always be a simplified sketch, you need to create a model to help you get your head around the challenge.”
Q. What information do you collect to create the map and what are you actually documenting?
Mark. “To create the system map, we gather data about how the individuals within the team understand themselves in relation to others. We capture the visible actions that people can see – who has said or done what – and the narratives – the stories that individuals have constructed to make sense of these actions. Once we’ve gone through this process, we’ve got a system mapped out that includes the agents, the sense making, and the flows of influence.”
Q. How do you go from this map to a set of steps that a manager or leader can take?
Mark. “What this map does, essentially, is give the executive a vantage point on the balcony, where he or she can look down on the dance that the individuals have been doing together. Then the Kenning consultant helps the leader find the leverage point where targeted intervention will have the greatest positive effect – working with the power of the system rather than against it.”
Q. What kinds of leverage points do you typically identify?
Mark. “The action the executive can take might be something structural and mechanistic, like changing a policy that is influencing sense making within the system and inspiring undesirable behavior. Or we may discover that a piece of the system, perhaps the dynamic between two individuals, is the crucial bit of the system to work on. Sometimes, if you can get two colleagues up on the balcony they can reach a new understanding that will ripple out in positive ways to the rest of the system.”
“Or, we might decide that a group of people needs to engage in an exercise to expand their sense making. In this case, the leverage point would be the changed sense making of the entire subgroup. If the team expands their sense making, they can co-create a solution to the problem that they can implement together. If the goal is full team alignment, this approach may be the required course of action. But it isn’t the only possible way to inspire change.”
Contact Kenning to explore the implications for your organization.