Sunday, February 3, 2013

Perfectly Aligned

I often talk with people who are struggling with too much to do with too little time, money and/or resource. As I listen, I'll notice that many of the struggles are self-imposed. In fact, so many are self-imposed that it makes little sense to look at others until the self-imposed ones have been remedied. Self-imposed challenges are the easiest challenges because anything self-imposed can be self-remedied, specially when it comes to not having enough time, money or support.

Further, the sources of self-imposed challenges are readily identifiable. All you have to do is look for goals and activities that are misaligned. They're easy to spot. It's just that they're sometimes difficult to accept.

Misaligned Goals
Most of us spend much of our time simultaneously pursuing goals and activities that are misaligned. Misalignment of goals and activities is the core cause of the phenomenon: one step forward, two steps back

You run to lose weight. Running makes you extra hungry. You eat more food. 

You hire someone to help you. The person you hired needs a lot of instruction and oversight. You spend more time teaching, directing and fixing than you would had you done the work yourself.

You want to perform well. Your desire causes you to worry. Worry causes you to fail.

You declare your commitment. Your commitment morphs into obligation. Feeling obliged leads you to avoid tasks associated with your commitment.

Somewhat Aligned
I'll typically point out cases where what someone does is inconsistent with what she says she wants. I might say something short and to the point like, "You don't really want that." 

The response might be, "How do you know what I do or don't want?"

I might reply, "Because everything you're doing runs contrary to what you say you want. You can tell what you really want by what you really do."

Some people get offended (which would also be misaligned with stated intentions); some decide to dig into my assertion and look at the observations that drove me to it. The first order of business is to see what is to see what activities and goals are misaligned. The second is to see what can be done to better align them. 

The result is typically a new view (if not an action plan) that is somewhat aligned.
Things get much easier when tasks and goals are somewhat aligned; at least they're not pulling in opposite directions. Being somewhat aligned is better, but it's far from optimal. The problem is that the next step toward perfect alignment involves "tough choices".

In the past when I'd interview managers for positions in my company, I'd ask them how many people they'd fired. For many, it was the first time hearing that question in an interview or perhaps, ever.

The ability to fire someone whose goals and work are not aligned with those of an organization is critical to success, specially when the organization has limited time and budget. In large organizations managers often avoid firing people by transferring them to other groups within the organization. I've known managers who've promoted people just to get rid of them. In small ones, you don't have that luxury.

One of the barriers that limits people to being only somewhat aligned is the requirement to drop specific tasks, goals and/or resources, specially when any of them involves people. If you have lots of time and money, then you can avoid this requirement. However, if you don't, then being able to fire someone or change a supplier or stop a misaligned activity that you really enjoy is critical to success.

The best exercise I know to help facilitate the transition to alignment is the Stop List. You create a list of all those things that consume time, money and resource. You check off the ones that are not contributing to or are pulling against your goals. You stop doing them (or you change your goals).

Perfectly Aligned
After you've got everything and everyone pulling in the same direction, you can work on optimization through better communication and coordination. You can work out a schedule that allows you to multitask or to accomplish several goals with just one task. You can schedule assignments for teammates that facilitate parallel activity and progress. You can hone yourself and/or your team into a well-oiled machine.

That's after everything is aligned. These are all second-order optimizations. It doesn't do much good to work on better communication and coordination when not everyone is pulling in the same direction or to work on a more efficient schedule when the scheduled tasks are competing. Alignment comes first.

How aligned are you? How aligned is your team?

Happy Sunday,

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