The following is adapted from The Art of Alignment A Practical Guide to Inclusive Leadership.
When you’re trying to get things done in your organization and move an initiative down the tracks, you can run into many obstacles along the way. Depending on where you’re positioned, you may feel helpless at times to get the traction you need to see a project through to completion.
The good news is that you always don’t need to be the top dog in your organization to make things happen, but if you ignore the chain of command, you may end up in a political quagmire. The strategy of “asking for forgiveness instead of permission” isn’t a strategy at all. Leading in a vacuum will lead to functional silos and organizational misalignment.
To create alignment around your goals no matter where you fit in the pecking order, learn how to break through silos by aligning players up, down and across the structure.
Alignment in a multi-layered organization is always challenging. Conventional wisdom says to start at the top, then cascade decisions down to every level with your direct reports and vendors. A Top-Down approach to alignment has many advantages.
Those at the top have the best vantage point to reconcile competing options and make best use of limited resources. They have the formal authority to make changes and hold the power of the purse needed to provide incentives.
That said, working from the top down has many risks. Messages cascaded down often end up like the messages in a game of telephone. The message of “Don’t throw away recycling” gets heard by the last person down the chain as “Don’t stop griping.” Furthermore, when senior leaders formulate plans without consulting those who will be affected, they often create senseless mandates that have unintended negative consequences.
This scenario occurs every day in many organizations, resulting in wasted time, unnecessary expense, and feelings of disempowerment. Over time, those in charge lose the trust of those they lead. To avoid this, make sure that you co-creatively include those closest to the work in major decisions. You don’t have to completely relinquish your authority, but by making your plans well informed, they will also be well received.
When you don’t have the power or authority to make a change, you may feel it is not your place to even suggest one. I don’t believe in that. If you have a transformative idea, then why hold back, even if you are at the very bottom of an organization? You just need the know-how to step outside the lines and the patience to align others with your idea.
If your idea crosses organizational boundaries, you will need finesse, diplomacy, and change management skills. Many of my clients feel frustrated and powerless because they believe they must only do what their boss asks of them. While there are some bosses out there whom you really can’t influence, most love it when their employees proactively come to them with ideas for improvements.
I always encourage my clients to step out of reactivity and into creativity by formulating a proposal to clarify the areas where they need more direction. An example was my work with Claire, the head of training for a software company. Claire was always operating in “firefighter” mode because of a lack of clear direction from above. I encouraged Claire to pull together a draft training plan and budget and run it up the chain of command to get approval.
To Claire’s surprise, her boss was thrilled and Claire finally had a solid plan. The next year, she repeated the process and got even more support from the CEO. While Claire’s story was a big success, I have also had clients who made recommendations that were not approved. If this happens to you, don’t consider it a failure. At least you’ve given the opportunity a shot. Just remember, if you don’t ask for what you want, you probably will never get it.
Sometimes you need alignment in a system where there is no power differential. Every once in a while, I work with teams and organizations that have no hierarchy. In these cases, alignment principles and practices can keep things moving forward.
One example was a team of three business co-founders I coached. They created a holistic approach to funerals that breaks away from the traditional model of a funeral home. In the foundation stages, they were struggling to make the decisions that would get their business up and running. So, I spent a few hours with them to help them gain alignment.
They were each assigned the task of coming up with a proposal to run by the other two. A week later, we reconvened for two hours. In that session, the co-founders reached alignment on the budget and left the meeting excited to work on the other areas. They later informed me that that day was instrumental in them becoming secure enough to open their doors.
Usually, sideways alignment is needed in small groups sharing power, but it can also work in a larger system that values collaboration. Hiring a neutral facilitator can also be a beneficial strategy in these situations.
Regardless of where you fall on your organizational chart, you know where the silos exist that can be barriers to alignment and reaching your organizational goals. As you’re trying to get your ideas off the ground, it’s tempting to operate unilaterally, especially if silos persist; however, this can be a maddening and damaging strategy.
Instead, focus on creating a culture of empowerment, high engagement, and trust by learning how and when to align the stakeholders from the top down, bottom up, and sideways. This strategy will always position you for success.
For more advice on overcoming silos in your organization, you can find The Art of Alignment on Amazon.
Patty Beach is the founder of LeadershipSmarts, a consulting firm that transforms managers into creative leaders that build “teams on fire that never burn out.” Her approach to leadership development evolved over twenty years of designing award-winning programs for companies, universities, nonprofits, and government agencies. Before earning a master’s degree in organizational development from Pepperdine University, and becoming an ICF Master Certified Coach, Patty was a geologist and manager leading initiatives in new technology and emerging markets in the energy industry. Patty and her husband, Roger Toennis, also developed the Versatility Factor assessment to foster gender intelligent and inclusive leadership.