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Separating Success from Failure

It’s a cliché that success and failure are separated by a fine line, and often a heavy dose of good fortune. But it is also true that you make your own luck by doing the right things right more often than the other guy.

And that is never more true than in business; especially an SME with limited resources and even less momentum, where stalling can be terminal for the organisation.

For sure, sitting around talking (or writing) about it won’t crack it but in a nod to reflection consider the impact of the twin elements of Leadership and Alignment. Of course no characteristic, no matter how fundamental, is only ever “necessary”, it’s never sufficient. You have to have the capabilities, the technology, the markets and a whole host of other things to even get to the start line; but for long term success Leadership and Alignment are indispensable.

Leadership is a well-trodden path that is generally understood at some level, if often forgotten in practice; but it’s the physics of Alignment we consider in this brief piece, because Alignment truly does respond to the laws of Physics like almost no other aspect of Management theory. Without alignment all the energy expended on honest endeavour counts for little or, in extremis, nothing at all. A business has just so much capacity at its disposal; how it gets used is a business differentiator.

Consider for a moment a half ton block of concrete, representing the business challenge. On each face of the block, North South, East and West there is an embedded ring attached to a rope which in turn is attached to a fine athlete who is then given the order to pull for all they are worth to their allotted point on the compass. All that sweat, all that horsepower, all that endeavour and not a single inch does the block move. The analogy is clear. Then, in a burst of inspiration, the four rings are moved to the North face of the block and all the athletes pull North. Same power, same endeavour, but the block moves; not easily because there is always resistance; but reliably Northwards. That is pure alignment. Everyone pulling in one direction in common cause. But, I hear you say, not unreasonably; life isn’t that straight forward. If people are pulling in the wrong direction you fire them and bring in people who “get it” and will join the boss heading North. But in organisational life people’s commitment to the cause is rarely so simply indicated. Leadership is all about shades of grey.

Another analogy. Replace the concrete block with a steep rock face at the bottom of which stand four climbers. Three of the four climbers with their equipment set out to climb the cliff; a significant challenge under ideal circumstances. The fourth member volunteers to anchor the base station and provide guidance from the bottom; but secretly loads each of the other guys’ backpacks down with rocks weighing the equivalent of a person. Getting to the top under ideal circumstances is hard; doing it with a person wrapped round your ankles pulling you back down the cliff makes it virtually impossible. They fail. Alignment matters.

And this is not some sort of abstract parable; it’s a representation of real business life. The following example of where a lack of alignment nearly took down a significant British tech business acts as a cautionary tale.

The CEO had a grand plan. It would transform the business. He knew it would be controversial and he understood that he needed his top team with him from Day 1. He understood the need for Alignment. They gathered on the Monday morning in the Boardroom along with the consultants the CEO had brought in to drive the programme. The slides were impressive, the message was passionate and the need for alignment was made clear. He offered his team a generous “out” if anyone felt they could not align with the project. And to a Man (and woman) they signed up. Great! Actually, not great because the minute the top team left the room half of them fell into a huddle, challenging the wisdom and relevance of the whole thing and, metaphorically, started filling the CEO’s backpack with rocks. And of course their scepticism transmitted to their subordinate managers and before you know it, half the organisation was embarked upon a hugely significant change project to which they were either actively opposed or, almost as bad because it operates below the radar, doing the minimum necessary to not be found out and thereby acting as a dead weight dragging the organisation back down the rock face.

The net of it all was a £20 million spend on a programme that divided the business, caused the parent company to fire the CEO and after 2 years have to redefine the direction of the company.

Lessons? Alignment is a bit like gravity, you can’t see it, only its effects. As a business leader you have to be constantly checking in and reinforcing complex messages and testing that your people really are “with the programme” measured by what they actually do not what they say. It’s not a case of blind compliance either. You as Leader do not have all the answers. If someone challenges an element of the agreed strategy, that challenge has to be acknowledged, evaluated and if necessary responded to with change, which itself means you have to be clear of the challenger’s motive in raising a concern. Leadership was never a simple case of standing up and shouting “Follow me everyone”.

Just to be clear, Alignment isn’t a binary phenomenon that is either on or off, but a continuum that will vary; but the Leader’s aim is to keep it high and consistent as a priority. Apply a Traffic light approach to your own organisational alignment and assign relevant metrics to gauge whether your people are heading in the same direction. It’s business critical.