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It's obviously helpful in organizations for everyone to be heading in the same direction, rather than working at cross purposes. It's called alignment and we have all heard calls to attain that blessed state but might wonder exactly what it is, where it occurs and how to get there.

Atlanta-based consultant Riaz Khadem – who has a doctorate in applied math and taught at various universities, including Laval in Quebec, before moving into consulting – offers some direction by outlining seven areas in which organizations can develop alignment. You may consider it a checklist for your own workplace's effectiveness.

  • Focus and direction: People understand and accept the company’s vision and strategy – they all share the same picture of success and how they can contribute to it in measurable terms.
  • Strategy execution: The strategic initiatives are receiving the necessary attention and energy to guarantee effective execution. There isn’t a disconnect between strategy and operations.
  • Vertical: Everybody throughout the organizational hierarchy needs to be aligned with the level above – their boss’s priorities – and ultimately the strategy.
  • Horizontal: Departmental boundaries, rivalries and entrenched, independent silos can prevent people from collaborating freely with peers across the various organizational functions.
  • Competencies: Individual skills need to match the requirements for the person’s responsibilities.
  • Values: Individual behaviour should be congruent with the core values of the company. When it’s not, scandals can occur. You need more than virtuous values; you need to underline their importance to everyone to get alignment.
  • Compensation: Does compensation link to performance or is it out of whack? Are people rewarded for seniority or position in the hierarchy rather than output? At all levels, there should be a connection to performance.

That's a bundle, more than leaders usually contemplate when they talk about alignment.

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"Most organizations are not aligned until something bad happens. Then, when something bad happens, they realize it's important," Dr. Khadem, author with his lawyer wife Linda Khadem of the book Total Alignment, says in an interview.

Typically, the most misaligned, he says in the interview, is compensation – glaringly at the top, for chief executives, but also down at the lowest levels of the organization. He suggests a more coherent approach, starting first with the bonus system, as that's the easiest to change, and then later also with promotions and salaries. But all of the seven areas for alignment are difficult. You need to remove barriers to alignment and put systems in place to fix it.

Tools can also help, such as his vision tree, which involves outlining the many elements of your vision as branches of a tree with the indicators to measure progress as sub-branches. Many companies, of course, have key performance indicators but often some (or many) of them are not related to the strategy or vision.

An alignment map extends that, a chart rather than a conventional geographical map, with the vision tree in the centre. On the right side are the various strategic initiatives you plan and on the left side the indicators of success. Again, you need linkage. Strategies need measures of success. Indicators not related to strategy have to be questioned. You also want to make sure you have kept your strategic initiatives to a workable, vital few that clearly relate to customers.

From there, you move on to assign individual accountability. It's not easy to do, but he simplifies and focuses it by recommending three one-page reports be used:

  • The Focus Report looks at the overall effort at a glance – the various initiatives and indicators, with their status. For example, if you are watching the percentage of customer returns and it was 3 per cent last month, that is recorded so you can compare next month easily. When the status can be evaluated against some agreed-upon criteria, you will also mark if your effort was good or bad.
  • The Feedback Report summarizes the results for your own responsibilities, highlighting where you have fallen below the unacceptable range in status and where you are above the satisfactory level.
  • The Management Report shows how people in your pyramid of responsibility are faring, based on the principle of management by exception. People who are performing within the acceptable range don’t show up on this report as, at this time, they aren’t an issue and you have little to address.

If you want alignment – total alignment – that may help you to achieve it.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online column, Power Points. E-mail Harvey Schachter

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