Alignment and Decision Making

Sep 12, 2022

I’ve noticed that people often like to break down problems into hierarchies. When we are tasked with thinking about a Mission or Vision, the immediate goal is to define what we’re planning for on a longer time horizon. OKRs are another example where the Objective is simply a bigger task than each Key Result. Strategy is another concept that ends up being about the work rather than the impact. The question should be asked then, what the point of Missions, Visions, Strategies, Objectives, etc. if not to break down the work? In a word, it is all about Alignment.

Alignment is when a group of people have a shared goal or cause that they can agree on. Alignment within a group is extremely challenging to understand and quantify, so I don’t make any claims as to the best way to know you’re aligned. With that said, the most important outcome of Alignment is around Decision Making. An organization can be aligned on the requirement to reduce cost or attract more customers, but without that alignment impacting daily decision making, it doesn’t really mean much. Therefore, let’s adjust our definition a bit.

Alignment provides a shared focal point for which to measure decisions throughout an organization.

As a leader trying to find alignment, this definition helps to test whether a document, strategy, or objective is guiding people towards the intended outcomes. You can ask what someone thinks are some actions they would take based on an alignment document and see directly where you may be sending people and where you need to clarify definitions or concepts. You can test current initiatives to see if they are aligned and choose whether to keep doing them or not. You’re making it clear you want to set up the parameters for success in order to allow folks to be creative, decisive, and supported as they work to make an impact. What’s more, you give people a clear reason to say no that can improve alignment.

At one point we needed to revisit our Mission and Vision. I took a first pass at it and asked what people thought. Crickets. We dug into things together and asked what decisions we would make that would be in alignment with the mission and vision. The team made it clear they saw it differently and helped craft the mission and vision to align on our decision making. Focusing on decision making helped to remove the subtleties of a mission and vision. We intrinsically were reasonably aligned, but when we explicitly considered our decisions, it became clear there were things we shouldn’t do and would decide against. Over time, this understanding helped us prioritize and avoid going down rabbit holes that weren’t in line with our Mission and Vision.

To contrast, another time I tried to help a team create a Mission and Vision it failed miserably. I explained what makes a good Mission and Vision. The conversation revolved around altitude and what level of detail we should include. We talked about abstract and high level efforts that we felt should be covered, implicitly thinking hierarchically about our commitments. While I think the end result were decent examples of a Mission and Vision, they were failures because we didn’t create alignment.

When you think about strategies, missions, visions, etc. from the standpoint of alignment and decision making they quickly stop being hierarchical steps that will inevitably become stale. As a leader, your job is to empower your team to do its best work and alignment is how you can free up your team’s mental capacity to focus on what is important. Alignment also helps your team call you out and hold you accountable. The next time you’re planning or considering where your team is going, think about how to help them make decisions that help instead of yet another north star that doesn’t help them succeed.