Successful implementation ultimately involves teams achieving – or exceeding – the intended goals and objectives set out at the beginning of the journey. No secrets there.
Of the many factors that contribute to successful implementation teams, there is one that enables success more than any other: alignment.
The reason that you will doubt this is partly because academic research on teams hasn’t definitively proven this (yet); but more likely, your experience will replace alignment with other words – resources, skills, culture, sponsorship, ownership, etc. And often you’ll hear that the team is aligned and good as is – but with little evidence of what this means or consists of.
But here’s why alignment is, more so than ever, the key enabler to successful implementation. In today’s world of constant change, the shelf-life of alignment is the opposite of Moore’s law. It has a half-life of less than a month. Things change frequently enough in organizations today that re-calibrating to ensure you’re on track is rapidly becoming a necessity.
That’s not because your implementation team members aren’t skilled or capable. It’s because more so today everyone is handling numerous initiatives and are often playing different roles on many different teams – and so are increasingly fragmented. And on top of that – just when things get into some synergy or flow, things change.
The other thing you hear whispered in the hallways is that alignment takes time – which no one has enough of – which is also why you tend to assume you’re aligned, and disincentivised to do alignment “work”.
That’s why the Kung Fu reference in this article’s title (refer to link below – *). Alignment normally does take time – and it’s normally hard won. Like wisdom, you can’t manufacture alignment. It can sometimes be unreasonably difficult to come by. You think you have it, you leave the meeting, and the next email you see is exactly the opposite of what you thought would happen when you left.
So it can be frustrating to attain, and because of that, it can be perceived as “not being worth the time it takes”.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Getting the most from your alignment work in implementation.
So why bother doing alignment work? The main reason is because if you can do it well enough, there can be a method to the madness that results in building wider capability.
Here’s a few pointers on how to get the most from your alignment work. The way you’ll know it’s working is it will take you less time to re-align the better you get at it. Also you will spend more of your time addressing the elements you know need to be addressed than worrying that you’re not aligned.
1. Being clear on what we mean by alignment
First – you’re never going to be 100% aligned – and even if you could be, you’ll not stay that way all the time. But that’s not the point either.
The point of alignment is to be as efficient and effective as you need to be to deliver the task at hand. It is clearly therefore critical to understand the key elements of being aligned and when that is not optimum, closing gaps as quickly as possible. The two key elements to alignment are structural and processual.
Structural elements are the basic elements required for the team to function, or basic elements required for the team to deliver the team’s task. Process aspects concern role clarity individually and collectively to deliver the team task and communication processes for the team to be as effective as it needs to be. As a leader’s role is to ensure the team has a way of delivering what it is tasked to do in order to be successful given its constraints, having team alignment is the best way of ensuring the team is set up for success.
What often isn’t clear are leader and their team members’ preferences for alignment. Is it data – i.e. enough data or enough of the right type of data? Or time together (high extroversion)? Or conflict styles and how we resolve conflicts – and is there enough time spent in team (vs individual) discussion to resolve? These preferences are the factors that aren’t discussed – and when they are, they enable you to consider what is required to maximize the team’s needs for alignment.
2. Start-up, on-going and shut down
If you’re implementing, things are always changing. As the task progresses, deliverables are realized, parts of the implementation unit fall off and new parts join. One of the basics in alignment is to have on-boarding, on-going and off-boarding processes so resources can become a functioning part of your implementation team or organization while they’re with you – and importantly, after they leave. Resources can be seconded for long periods or come into and out of implementation efforts multiple times. Provide instances where these processes can go on smoothly in order to minimize disruption to the overall effort.
Again, what isn’t always clear to leaders is whether these processes are sufficient and sufficiently cover what is expected. This is typically what sewers these processes which contributes to a perception that they don’t work or aren’t helpful/needed.
3. Practice time
Think of your most successful teams. Successful teams have a balance between task items and process items in their work. But here’s what isn’t said so often about work teams: contrary to what is generally accepted, they are NOT like sports teams, orchestras, ballet companies, theater companies and many other performance organizations often referenced as metaphors for team building. Those organizations spend way more time away from the center stage practicing than actually delivering and performing.
Work teams are almost the exact opposite – and in our virtual world, this is increasingly even more the case. They spend almost all of their time performing, and almost none of it in practice. Think of the last time you or your team took time out for training – or even more important – application of the training in your day-to-day work? Is it possible that this has some part to play in the many stories of failures in implementation?
Ensuring you have a meeting agenda that balances task work (alignment on deliverables) and process work (alignment on communication processes) in a way that plays to your team preference profile is a great way to make up for some of the lack of practice time we have in organizations.
4. Flawless start-up and execution
In this note, the use of this term (flawless) is not trying to draw on the popular work on flawless execution that you’ll find through a Google search. But there is an approach that enables teams and organizations to do two things required for alignment. One is to identify and align around the right set of success factors required to get them going; and the second is to structure team work to enable on-going maintenance to ensure you continue to operate as close to top performance as possible.
A flawless start-up consists of a structure and process discussion. In a nutshell structure involves an introduction into the implementation team’s task, team resources and culture and implementation environment; a review of the task of the overall team; and review of each person’s roles and how their activities contribute to the overall task. The process part addresses the team “maintenance” activities – the process of communicating desired by the team, and also – critically – each member’s on-going development agenda that combines individual and team enabling factors (capabilities). Flawless start-up meetings require sufficient preparation and data gathering to enable maximum time to be spent on outcomes – agreements on ownership of team task and process activities.
Flawless execution follows from the process step in flawless start-up. The team agrees an agenda and a process for communicating status as things progress. Early execution meetings follow a rigid formula balancing task and process aspects, with an emphasis on process – getting the team to understand it’s preferences and style in order to find optimal ways of working together. After 2 or 3 meetings, the emphasis should shift to enable task elements to be covered quickly and a maximum of time taken on process aspects.
This sounds prescriptive but it’s not meant to be. It requires tailoring to each situation. But these elements have proven to create maximum positive team impact in the least amount of time.
Close-out: getting alignment quickly.
There are many different types of implementation teams – c-suite, operational, regional, program office, decision-review boards, and others… and they all have different objectives, structures, life-time expectancies and needs. So a blanket approach to the above 4 points is not necessarily the goal of this note. Rather, if you’re leading implementation teams, it’s a helpful starter on what to focus on to get results.
There are no shortcuts to getting alignment. But with an informed approach, getting some help for the parts you need to learn as a leader, and a little bit of practice, you do not have to suffer either from the impact of mis-alignment or making time for alignment but not getting anything from your efforts.
* NOTE - definition of Kung Fu:
Kung fu/Kungfu or Gung fu/Gongfu is a Chinese term referring to any study, learning, or practice that requires patience, energy, and time to complete, often used in the West to refer to Chinese martial arts, also known as Wushu. It is only in the late twentieth century, that this term was used in relation to Chinese Martial Arts by the Chinese community. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the term "Kung-fu" as "a primarily unarmed Chinese martial art resembling karate." This illustrates how this term has been misused in English. The origin of this misuse can be attributed to the misunderstanding or mistranslation of the term through movie subtitles or dubbing. In its original meaning, kung fu can refer to any skill achieved through hard work and practice, not necessarily martial. The Chinese literal equivalent of "Chinese martial art" would be 中國武術 zhōngguó wǔshù. In Chinese, Gōngfu is a compound of two words, combining 功 meaning "work", "achievement", or "merit", and 夫 which is alternately treated as being a word for "man" or as a particle or nominal suffix with diverse meanings. A literal rendering of the first interpretation would be "achievement of man", while the second is often described as "work and time/effort". Its connotation is that of an accomplishment arrived at by great effort of time and energy. In Mandarin, when two "first tone" words such as gōng and fū are combined, the second word often takes a neutral tone, in this case forming gōngfu. The word is also sometimes written as 工夫, this version often being used for more general, non-martial arts usages of the term.
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