How Alignment Can Make Your Organization Flow

Triple Crown LeadershipToday’s guest post is by Bob and Gregg Vanourek, authors of Triple Crown Leadership (click here to get your copy).

During World War II, Sheldon Coleman, head of Coleman Corporation, an outdoor equipment manufacturer, went to Washington seeking the general in charge of procurement. The general told him they needed a compact field stove that was small and light—less than six pounds—and that could burn fuels found on the battlefield and operate in a temperature range of minus-60 to plus-125 degrees Fahrenheit.

It was a tall order. After Coleman’s engineers drafted some rough designs they thought might work, Coleman called the general and, overreaching some, said they had a product.
The general was delighted and said they needed five thousand in sixty days.


Coleman formed cross-functional teams to work around the clock, overlapping by thirty minutes so they could brief the incoming group on progress and issues. In sixty days, the company delivered five thousand G.I. (Government Issue) Pocket Stoves to the front lines in Africa. All told, Coleman produced more than a million for war use.

In our interview with him for our new book, Tim Daniel (former Vice President of Special Markets at Coleman Corporation), told us:

“The G.I. Pocket Stove went on to become one of the most treasured items of the American soldier…. To me, this was flow in its greatest sense: committing to an almost-impossible task, redesigning your business structure to meet a deadline, and then executing.”

Coleman Corporation worked in “flow” during that pivotal time, operating at peak performance. Such moments of peak performance occur across domains, from sports and the arts to programming and chess. Jazz musicians get “in the groove.” Athletes get “in the zone.”

According to Claremont Graduate University Professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, flow is a state of almost effortless attention and peak performance. The term comes from his interviews with people who have moved into a state of “optimal experience.” He called it flow because many of them described it as if a rushing current of water carried them along.

Unfortunately, most organizations never experience flow. In our experience, far too many organizations are dysfunctional—some only moderately, others pathologically.

Dysfunction is both widespread and costly. According to a 2010 Booz and Company survey of more than 1,800 executives, 64 percent say their biggest frustration factor is “having too many conflicting priorities.” Such organizations pay an “incoherence penalty.”

Fortunately, there is a remedy. We call it “alignment”—a collaborative leadership process that gives an organization coherence.

The benefits of alignment are numerous. It clarifies the elements for success, focuses people, eliminates unessential work, provides continual feedback, and unleashes talent.

We developed “The Alignment Model,” a framework that we have employed successfully with numerous companies and nonprofit organizations. It contains ten steps, summarized here:

1. Purpose. Purpose addresses why an organization exists, its raison d’etre. The purpose statement should be short, memorable, and inspiring.

2. Values. Values are the norms that guide behavior in the organization, the standards for how people should behave. Everyone in the organization should know them and be responsible for upholding them.

3. Vision. The vision provides a clear and compelling picture of what an organization aspires to achieve over a decade or so. It should describe what success looks and feels like.

4. Goals. Goals are the few critical aims of the enterprise. They should be clear, measurable, prioritized, and challenging but achievable.

5. Strategy. Strategy addresses how to achieve the desired goals in light of opposing pressures and existing resources. It should include the several prioritized, major initiatives of how to achieve the goals in ways different from competitors.

6. People. This step specifies who should be involved in the enterprise and the types of people sought for key positions. It should include the hard skills, knowledge, and capabilities required, as well as the personal characteristics, fit with the organization’s culture, and emotional intelligence desired.

7. Structure. The organization’s structure must be appropriate to achieve the purpose, vision, goals, and strategy. Structure involves choosing the proper organizational form and specifying what it does internally versus contracting externally.

8. Processes. These are the necessary standards, systems, and policies to guide the work. When handled well and without red tape, processes keep actions within critical boundaries, promoting efficiency, transparency, and coordination.

9. Action Plans. These are the several major, prioritized, short-term actions that must be taken at each level to accomplish important, non-routine tasks. They document who will do what by when, laying down accountability markers. They are traceable to a schedule, ideally with a budget estimate, and they are unique for each person or unit.

10. Communication Loops. Alignment requires tracking and reporting metrics on a regular schedule. Metrics should be clear, simple, accessible, and under the control or substantial influence of the relevant department or person. Leaders should connect these metrics to performance appraisals, merit increases, and incentive pay. These feedback loops give the alignment process teeth. Without accountability, alignment fizzles.

Each alignment step should link with the other steps. The steps should cohere and give organizations what Tyco CEO Ed Breen calls “operating rhythm”—a drumbeat, a cadence of execution.

In our experience, many leaders do not know how to create an aligned organization. They do parts of alignment, but not all the steps; or they do them top-down without the collaboration necessary to refine and inculcate them into the organization’s DNA.

There are many causes of alignment breakdowns: lack of commitment, focus on wordsmithing instead of action, abandonment of the process midstream (usually to put out fires, a symptom of misalignment), and lack of accountability.

Alignment is an ongoing collaborative leadership process. not a one-shot fix. It is a powerful way of coalescing people to work together in flow.

Is your organization aligned?

Bob and Gregg Vanourek– Bob and Gregg Vanourek are co-authors of the newly released book, Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (McGraw-Hill), from which this guest blog is excerpted. See Follow them on Twitter: @TripleCrownLead

One Response to “How Alignment Can Make Your Organization Flow”

  1. This is perfect; I agree and sure sometimes even an inidividual need to reach this flow like the Music band. The point of optimum performance when like a trance an individual out performance beyond the rational mind can comprehend. I found this article very true.

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