Tonya stood before the gathering, her gaze drifting across the faces of her team members. The meeting dragged on longer than she hoped, and with the lunch hour well past, they were hungry, anxious, and restless.
It was a good meeting, though lengthy. Many topics were discussed -some of them drifting into heated arguments, but they ultimately measured as productive. Tonya was excited. It seemed as though everyone was on the same page with her strategies.
They were in agreement. They were in alignment.
Two Months Later, Tonya Had No Idea What Went Wrong
After that marathon four hour meeting, Tonya assumed everything was fine, that everyone on her team understood their goals, direction, and need to make a few changes (minor in the grand scheme of things, according to her estimation).
What she couldn’t figure out as the weeks passed was why nothing changed. No one stepped up. No one offered their time. None of her department heads were willing to commit resources to actually enacting the changes addressed in that meeting.
Frustrated and (to be honest with herself) angry, she scheduled another meeting. Promised to be ‘short and concise,’ it turned out to be anything but.
What she expected to be 15 minutes or less rolled into an hour of discussion. When they finally broke and headed back to their tasks, Tonya remained in the conference room, sitting in the plush leather office chair, pages of scribbles and scrawls filled yellow legal pages, and traced the faint line of a scratch on the polished oak table.
What is wrong with this? she pondered.
Slipping into the Mean
From everything she could gather, everything she could ascertain, the team was in agreement. Change was needed. What was more, she also found common agreement on what level and kind of change would be optimal for this company in order to remain competitive and rise ahead of the pack.
Yet, even as she conferred with her managerial staff, she felt the resistance. She couldn’t figure out why it was so difficult to get commitment for resources and time from a team that claimed outwardly they were in agreement.
Agreement is one thing; alignment is something else entirely. What Tonya discovered during this long and painful episode was that a consensus can be reached where the average -or mean- of any survey is gathered, and it may appear as though the entire decision is agreed, where everyone appears to be in agreement, but then nothing changes.
The Nature of Agreement
This all boils down to the inherent nature of agreement, especially in group settings. When you have 10 or 15 or 20 people (more, if that’s the kind of meeting you plan to hold), and you’re discussing a change in direction, culture, technology, or other component or aspect of the organizational structure, asking a simple question such as, “Are we all in agreement” may often be met with ascension.
Sure. Yes. I can get on board.
That’s because within the nature of agreement, there are several components leaders need to bear in mind.
First, how is the goal or plan presented? Is it being presented as a discussion, revelation, or command? Many team members may listen to the presentations and hear the chatter and assume the topic is already a foregone conclusion. They may presume there’s nothing they can do to change things so they might as well nod in agreement and deal with the issues as they arise.
Second, what level of room is there for honest discussion? Tying into the first point, if people don’t believe the topic is truly open for discussion or debate, they may stay quiet. This is exacerbated when it appears as though the decision has already been made.
For example, Tonya was talking about upgrading their entire network infrastructure, which would require her team members to shift to a new operating system, learn a few new programs and apps, migrate to a new email system, and so forth. The excitement she conveyed these ideas with was almost infectious, but more than that it was deemed by many in those meetings as a decision already made.
It was already ‘decided.’ Even though there was hearty and heated discussion about some of the topics, there was an overwhelming sense among the attendees that these changes were happening, whether they wanted or liked them or not. This doesn’t breed the concept of an ‘honest’ discussion, but rather a few topics of dissention on outlying factors.
Third, people who are not committed are not likely to commit resources. Tonya found this out the hard way, and it cost her organization time and money (two of the most valuable commodities any company possesses). Even though she was convinced the changes and adjustments presented in that meeting were essential for long-term growth and survival, she needed others to get on board.
But they weren’t. That’s because even though most of the team members nodded and said, ‘Yes, sure,’ they were on board and so forth, most weren’t actually in alignment.
A Car Cruising Down the Highway
Let’s shift gears for a moment (yes, I know, I like this pun, too). If you drive, you understand how important is to keep your car in good operating condition. The older it is, the more miles/kilometers you keep pounding down on the odometer, the more work it’ll require to operate as designed.
You can have the oil changed at the right intervals, replace the spark plugs, rotate the tires, and have the brakes inspected as recommended, but what happens when you slam over a pothole a bit too hard?
Hey, I’m not judging. It’s not easy to see those mines laid out on our highways and city streets with traffic congesting every pore. When you smack down into one, though, you know it. You feel it.
What happens to your car? Maybe nothing (if you’re lucky). Then again, it might slip out of alignment.
The car still runs, right? It still drives forward and backward as the transmission determines. It still shifts through the gears and stops as you expect. The radio still works as do the power windows and steering and seats.
But maybe it’s not keeping you cruising down the streets straight. If you let go of the wheel, maybe it starts to drift to the right. The faster you cruise, the more serious the drift. Give it enough time and ignore it long enough and you’ll eventually be forced to keep a firm grip on the wheel at all times, even turning the wheel a significant degree just to keep it going straight.
Not only does this wear your tires out much faster, it’s also unsafe. More important to the discussion in this article is how much effort you, the driver, need to put in to keep the vehicle on the road.
If you let go for even a second, you could find yourself drifting to the shoulder and maybe even down an embankment, all because you got a bit tired, distracted, or tried to grab change from the console for a toll.
If anyone on your team is out of alignment, s/he is probably not alone. On your car, the tie rods help maintain stability, but that’s not all. It’s the angle and pitch of each tire that also matters. It’s not just one team member, but the entire structure that keeps things moving smoothly. And straight.
We Need to Look at the Outliers
Focusing on the average consensus, or the mean, is fine for many things, but when you’re talking about keeping your company -your team- in alignment, you need to pay special attention to the outliers.
These are the ones who don’t fully understand the need for change, who may not grasp the entirety of the goals as presented, or who have different (and possibly opposing) ideas regarding the direction you want to take them.
There will likely be outliers who have completely opposing thoughts on different topics, spreading away from the average consensus. And it’s with these outliers that you are most prone to discovering where a lack of alignment may stem from.
An Effective Way to Find These Outliers
Outliers are valuable. Do not try to discredit or devalue their input. In fact, leaders who pay close attention to what they have to offer, tend to discover where resistance might stem from and how to better address and adjust to it.
One of the most efficient and effective ways to find the outliers is by conducting simple surveys at these meetings. Present the information, resources, goals, plans, and ideas in a way that doesn’t convey a decision has already been made. Instead, offer it as a real discussion, something that you want their input on.
Find the average in the answers and the standard deviation. Then, focus on the outliers.
Once the outliers have been identified, ask those team members to speak up. Offer a free and open platform and suppress open debate for the time being. People who are not in alignment are more prone to speak up if they know these decisions are not final and are still able to be adjusted.
Once people are aware that decisions are not being made yet, but rather the purpose of these meetings and discussions early on are about finding where misalignment will occur, it can address assumptions, doubts, concerns, and more that will lead to low investment down the road.
Don’t Expect Everyone to Be on the Same Page
Even though there will be outliers and resistance to just about any major change or structural shift in an organization, that should only highlight the fact not everyone will agree. It’s not essential for everyone to be on the same page.
There will always be those who prefer to cling to tried and true traditional methods and technologies. There will also be those who embrace change and anticipate new enthusiasm with it.
You don’t need everyone to be on the same level to enact change, but when they each feel their voice was heard and contributed to the discussion, you will find there’s greater commitment in the weeks and months that follow.
Bringing misalignment to the surface isn’t going to make them vanish. This isn’t a magic act.
By uncovering why misalignment may exist, you are in a better position to build a consensus, one that maximizes engagement and commitment to the goals, tasks, and plans moving forward.
The next time you’re driving home on a nice, flat, straight stretch of road and your car drifts (even just a little bit) when you slip your hands off the wheel, just imagine where you could end up if you don’t correct the problem.
Now imagine that happening in your organization. Being aligned is key to reaching your destination.
Joseph is a senior advisor at the Senate of Canada. Joseph enjoys writing, blogging and teaching. You can follow Joseph via Twitter @josephsoares.