Situation and circumstance can often dictate to us whether we can really be aligned when making decisions on future plans, projects and targets. Roles, departments, mergers and acquisitions, even being in separate countries can make things awkward when trying to agree on what next. However, when you consider that we are all individual and we all have different opinions and perspectives, it is not surprising that this alignment becomes even harder to execute. Many people hate anything that challenges the status quo, they hate not being in control and as such they hate anything that threatens our sense of security. As a result, our reactions can be both positive and negative.
So, aside from the potential physical barriers that may affect better collaboration, it is the human side of alignment that I would like to touch on now.
As I look back to my international rugby career where players were selected from 12 different clubs, it was pretty clear that we would all have different opinions of how the game should be played. We spent ages analysing the other teams, we knew each other inside out and as such, we picked apart each other’s weaknesses. It was no surprise therefore, that when we all came together for England, we all truly believed that our club’s way was the right way. For some, it was the only way.
I was very fortunate to be picked for England for several years but there was a moment in my career where it all became pretty apparent that we were not on the same wavelength.
In 2008, we finished the domestic season at the end of May with our respective clubs and the privileged few were selected for a 2 test series in New Zealand a couple of weeks later. Even though the team narrowly lost the final at the World Cup in 2007 in France, there was quite a big clear out of players and management and Martin Johnson was selected to take the team forward. He wisely chose to avoid the tour and took up the reigns for the start of the 2008/09 season.
It was clear from the start that we were not aligned at all. So much so, that the day before the first test match in Auckland, the players were still deciding what the best attacking shape should be for the team. Some wanted to play like Wasps, some wanted to be like Leicester. To this day, I’m still not sure what was decided, and given that I was the one to control it all on the field, I can’t tell you how under prepared I felt. You get the usual nervousness before any match, but this was above and beyond anything I had ever experienced. We were about to play the best team in the world in their own back yard and nobody had a clue. You can probably guess that things didn’t go our way!
Of course, it was not always like this and the World Cup Winning team of 2003 showed that it was, and is, possible to create an environment where everyone is pointing in the same direction.
So, how does that happen and what aspects underpin better alignment? Here are just a few I’d like to share with you.
Values and Behaviours
The first question to ask is around your organisation’s values and the associated behaviours. I can’t tell you how many times I have spoken to people from different organisations and they do not know or have forgotten what they are. It is crucial for those in senior positions to behave and act in a way that they expect everyone else to. What is key here though is that it must be done all the time with no shortcuts. Let things slip for a moment and everyone else thinks it is ok to do so too. These habits must course through the veins of an organisation and the only way that happens is when the senior leaders set the example in the first place.
It is clear that the most successful teams are those that have been together for a number of years. Where both player and senior management retention is high, so is their ability to have more difficult conversations with each other. And where there is deeper understanding, there is a greater chance of building trust, which ultimately leads to collaboration.
If you were to look closely at your own organisation, are your employee retention levels high? If not, why not?
Empathy and communication
At the very heart of what we all do is communication. Easy to say, perhaps much harder to achieve. As part of our work with teams, we focus on a couple of things.
- We create a space for everyone to voice their opinions. Understandably, this can be very daunting for some, but we actively encourage each individual to speak up because there could be some valuable information that needs to be considered, even if it’s from someone at the lower end of the hierarchy.
- We create an opportunity for people to embody what it’s like to be in another department, or another person’s shoes. This can be difficult to do but we ask people to consider other perspectives, to understand different challenges and to imagine what it’s like working in another situation. By respecting these differences and being curious about how things work for others we can then move forward with a clearer focus.
It’s important to say that moving forward together as one is never a perfect art and not everyone will get exactly what they want. Where we are happy to take in some areas, we must be willing to give in others and where it is crystal clear for one, it is completely the opposite for another. Ultimately, being aligned means being more empathetic.
And if you consider one of the main rules of systems or team coaching: Everyone is right…only partially, then you’ll go a long way in creating more empathy.