Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Leading in the 21st Century: Aligning

Super Bowl commercials can either be memorable or outrageous (or both). I don’t remember the product or service, but my favorite was one that appeared several years ago. The commercial featured several cowboys on horseback attempting to “herd cats.” I suppose I liked it because it was so familiar—anyone in a leadership role has found that working with a group of independent-minded people is often like herding cats! It is difficult to get all of them going in the same direction.

Another of the tasks that an organization in 21st century must do is to align team members and constituents in such a way that they are all pursuing the same goal. Once you have found the path that you wish to follow, how do you get everyone onto that path and moving forward?

This assumes that everyone is motivated to some degree and actually moving. I believe that there is a law of physics that states that it is easier to change the direction of an object in motion than to put a body at rest into motion. Most people have something that they want to accomplish in life or in your organization, but it may have nothing to do with the goal that the leadership has in mind.

I used to do a non-verbal exercise with groups that went something like this. I would ask the group to stand in a circle and lock arms. Then I would ask each person to pick a place in the room that he or she wanted to go to and to move the group to that point. Of course, this involved a lot of pulling and pushing. The smaller members of the group were pulled in different directions by competing larger members. Usually, the pulling and tugging resulted in the circle being broken and one section of the group pulling away from the others. In debriefing, I often asked, “How would this have been different if you could have talked with each other?” After discussion, someone would comment, “Well, we could have negotiated, set priorities, and taken the group to everyone’s spot eventually.”

I think it was Peter Senge’s writing that introduced me to the idea of alignment. The basic idea is that everyone is going somewhere, but is there some way to get everyone to either put aside or alter their goals so that everyone can move in the same direction, at least for a short while? Very often an individual’s goal can even be seen as a means of attaining the larger organizational goal so that it is a win-win situation.

This type of alignment requires clarity of purpose, listening, and negotiating. It may even require compromise (not a dirty word and the way that our government moved forward before we became so polarized in certain positions). Alignment does not mean that I give up sincerely held values or beliefs, but it does mean being willing to walk in the same direction with colleagues in order to reach the goals of the organization.

This is hard work, but if it were easy, anyone could do it!


Leonard Rader said...


Very good, may I borrow, steal, Plagiarize, the circle exercise?


Ircel said...

Please do. I am sure that I borrowed it from someone else, but it has been so long ago that I don't remember who it was!

Ircel said...

A friend shared this comment by e-mail: "By the way, the law of physics in question is the law of inertia—i.e. a body tends to continue on its way unless acted upon by another body or force. Interestingly enough, all bodies are in motion." Thanks for the insight!