Alignment + Agility = Competitive Advantage

Our previous two articles talked about creating alignment for success in 2021. First, your organization (and your teams) need a clearly articulated North Star and strategic clarity. Second, it is imperative to build a culture that reinforces alignment between how you work and what you aim to achieve. Alignment is essential for success. However, agility – in addition to alignment – will lead to competitive advantage.

Alignment without agility is stagnation.

Agility without alignment is chaos.

Over the past year, rapid response and breakneck adaptation have been watchwords for successful businesses in the COVID environment. The pace of that agile response has left people exhausted and organizations risking burnout among their teams. Some organizations have been changing so quickly that they have prioritized adaptation too highly. They are no longer aligned with or certain about their business strategy. And some feel they no longer recognize their culture. In a deep and dire emergency, business survival trumps culture.  Nevertheless, it has its negative consequences.

On the other hand, some of my clients are already worried that, as we approach a post-pandemic world, the desire for a sense of “normalcy” and decompression will result in a temporary, but dangerous stagnation. It could be very tempting to feed the longing for some stability, and focus too heavily on alignment, deprioritizing agility.

And therein lies the conundrum. Organizations that build and maintain competitive advantage create a balance between two competing elements: alignment and agility. It can be convincingly argued that the benefits of agility are only achieved within the context of ongoing alignment with strategy and culture. It is also a fact that change and alignment are, at their core, competing forces that require constant attention.

How can you create alignment and agility within your team?

  • Clearly focus on only a handful of strategic imperatives. And don’t assume clarity. Revisit those imperatives regularly with your team and discuss how the team’s work contributes to them. Use them as your guardrails.
  • Help strategy bubble up from the bottom.  People in the organization who are closer to the customers, operations and technologies often see opportunities and threats more quickly than executives do. In my HBR article, “5 Behaviors of Leaders Who Embrace Change”, I shared these two ideas for building this capability in your team:
    • Make opportunity-seeking part of the regular conversation. Simply asking questions like “What are our customers talking about? What do you think they will want a year or two from now? What new trends do you think will impact us?” sends the message that looking ahead is important. And that you value their input.
    • Advertise successes. Nothing breeds success like success. Tell the stories at company events and recognize team members who are looking ahead and identifying opportunities. Demonstrate that the status quo is not enough anymore.
  • Encourage experimentation and learn from failure:  Too often, traditional organizations’ first response to a risk is to ask, “Why?” Change agility requires leaders to ask “why not?” and to establish opportunities for pilots, prototypes, and experimentation. Experimentation is an integral part of R&D. While an overall strategy informs the researchers’ focus, any R&D scientist will tell you that there are sometimes dozens of experiments that don’t get results and that, without those failures, they wouldn’t have been able to find the successes.
  • Reallocate resources with discipline.  As Sulls’ and Homkes research found, organizations tend to move too slowly or move quickly but lose sight of the strategy. I consulted to an organization a few years ago where moving too quickly without discipline was hampering their ability to achieve results. The CEO had started the company and was the classic early-stage entrepreneur; extremely responsive to market needs, ready and willing to change strategy, and endlessly shifting resources. However, the company was not early stage anymore and this nearly sole focus on agility led to a complete lack of follow-through, very little alignment and was seriously impacting results. The board removed him and named a new CEO who added a new level of discipline to resource allocation through a combination of centralized oversight and distributed decision-making.

Start 2021 with the ideas we’ve discussed in these three articles – defining your North Star, creating strategic clarity, building a strong culture and creating aligned agility – and you will have improved your ability to thrive.