Get the Balance Right

“It’s more important to get a quality solution than making sure everyone is aligned around it.” A senior leader I work with said this to me recently as we discussed a major business challenge we’re facing. As a consultant with over 15 years of doing organization alignment/design work, this thought really challenged my beliefs that alignment is everything. OK – it’s not everything – but I’d place a bet in Vegas that a system realigned by a broad, inclusive cross-functional team will outperform one designed by experts and thrust upon the rest of the organization. Isn’t this why some of the higher end strategy consulting firms get a bad rap for delivering a technically excellent strategy and plan – but one which isn’t successfully implemented? Yet here I was, discussing this with a person I respect tremendously, and who has done really well as a leader driving high engagement and making things happen.

A lot of us in this field are very comfortable with shades of gray. We know that every design has trade-offs, and choosing the right set of trade-offs is the key to an effective, efficient and healthy design. Alignment in this conversation was more about inclusion of a broader team than it was about the alignment of the whole system (work, organization structure, metrics, etc.). So this conversation was really about the tension between the quality of the design and the degree of inclusion. After a little more conversation, this exec wasn’t saying that he and I should get a redesign finalized and then implemented. What he was saying is this: Let’s get a smaller group together, create a high quality working draft, then bring in a broader group to iterate from there.

This seems right in the middle of this spectrum of quality vs. inclusion, and I can get behind that. Here are a few principles that might be useful when working with your clients and teams to get the balance right:

  • Consider the health and maturity of the leadership team. Are they able to be vulnerable, be authentic, trust one another to speak and act as one when they walk out of the room? Is the situation a crisis that needs action now, or one that’s perfect to help build this kind of leadership alignment across the team? Sometimes work like this is leadership team effectiveness intervention in itself.
  • Don’t be afraid to be more directive with strategy and guidance, and more inclusive with design and system alignment. If a business unit isn’t clear about what work it does that causes customers to choose this business over others, how well can leaders and teams make informed decisions about where to optimize for efficiency vs. effectiveness? That’s strategy and guidance work that is important to get right. At the other end, how can senior leaders really be in touch with what it will take to align the whole system? System alignment work takes broad inclusion to get it right.
  • Plan to iterate work processes but stabilize people and roles. Take a look at David Rock’s SCARF model and consider which changes would trigger a threat response (e.g. having to re-apply for my job, make a lateral move that I didn’t initiate, change my working relationships, etc.) vs. ones that would certainly be change but much less likely to trigger a threat response (e.g. changing the technology or process I use to do my job, or a shift in some (but not all) of the key metrics used to assess my performance, etc.). Organizations and people are capable of a tremendous amount of resilience, but I’d argue that most leaders are much less change or risk averse than most of their teammates. Be deliberate to set the expectation of iteration or continuous improvement, but steer clear of chronic reorganization.

What other principles have you been using or discovering out there? Share your stories here, and I hope to see you sharing your stories (formally or informally) at the Organization Design Forum Conference in Silicon Valley, California, April 21-23, 2015! (By the way, our call for presenters is open through November 20th.)


Todd Christian, ODF Board Member



Curious to read more of our Boardmember Blogs . . .

  • Emily Axelrod

    Todd I have been in the same situation. The one I remember well was an organization under congressional gun of 90 days to redesign or be sanctioned. They choose this way of coming up with a design and then took it to their top 200 people to get feedback. They received 7 pieces of feedback. They met the evening of the conference and accepted 6 or the 7 as the 7th was not congruent with the others.
    The group was pleased and begin planning the implementation the next day.
    It wasn’t ideal but it was clear and everyone understood.
    Depending on the culture of the organization as long as those impacted get a voice in the decision making and can add information and have a say, it seems to be a good middle place.

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