Aligning Organizational Execution: Six Pillars Versus Six Pitfalls
Many myths circulating in organizations lead to practices that break down peoples’ abilities to gain alignment and work effectively across functional and team boundaries. This two part series will provide an opportunity to reflect from our own experience on what fosters effective alignment and strategic execution and what tends to work against them.
1. Working to Realize the Whole Versus Polarizing
When we work from the perspective of the whole, we see forces that are already present in the current world and we also see those that are still only potential and waiting for development. We see in people what forces they currently hold, and we also see their potential and what they are striving to become. Thus we are aware of one set of forces on a material plane and another on a mental or essence plane. Our interactions are no longer based solely on the reconciliation of contradictions arising from current capability or current forces; we also seek to interact with others based on potential and becoming — both theirs and ours.
This kind of interaction is characterized by regard for what is not explicitly expressed and questions that invite everyone to see potential that is not apparent. It employs mental frameworks that reveal what is not yet actual. We are then prepared to see what others desire in order to improve their effectiveness in the world we share with them, as well as the on-going aims that we are developing in ourselves.
When we cannot hold this perspective, we enter the “World of Contradiction,” within which we are able to see only polarities. We experience restraining and activating forces as they relate to our thinking. As we initiate actions, we expect inevitable hurdles. We see what others are proposing as if it were contrary to our view. In fact, an awareness of the other force exists simultaneously in our own thinking, but nevertheless we perceive it as purely contradictory and therefore exclusive and opposing. Polarity or dualism emerges, causing all thinking to be characterized by pairs of mutually exclusive opposites. Two contradictory things cannot both be possible at the same time, and therefore one must determine the truth through a series of mutually excluding sequences of reasoning that rules out options at every step. Two people can not be right at the same time if they have different, opposing views.
Our interactions in this world tend to be argumentative and combative. Polemics are the course of the day; each debater seeks to be the winner, the one who is right. We try to prove our point by citing examples from history, drawing analogies, using the other person’s view against them, or relying on the persuasion of a higher authority. If we are not an effective debater, we frequently give up and go along with the more persuasive force. Nothing new is brought into existence. A rehashing of past arguments is replayed mechanically — or maybe even imaginatively. Groups govern themselves by seeking arbitration, consensus or compromise, or in some cases agreeing to disagree. This world view, rare in the Western world, also leads to efforts to avoid conflict or, when contradiction does emerge, to passive-aggressive behaviors.
2. Using Disciplined, Critical Thinking Versus Generating Endless Options
It is necessary to reflect on our aims in order to know what the proper approach is for thinking about possible actions to take. For example, if we need creativity, working in a linear model will probably not get us where we want to be; but if we need an action list, linearity is an excellent approach.
Most of us are aware that linearity belongs to the left brain and that the right and left brains function differently and work well in different situations. We are less likely to have learned that, in addition to the thinking modes of the different hemispheres, we can use different approaches and methods to generate thinking appropriate for different situations.
Brainstorming and mind mapping work well in some circumstances but in others can be insufficient to the task. Both are elemental, tactical tools that arise from deduction, focus on parts rather than wholes, and invite divergent and expansive thinking. We cannot rely on them for focused thinking or for consensus building and priority setting.
Within divergent thinking generally there are strategic and tactical approaches, as well as guidelines that help determine situations when these approaches are appropriate. For instance, there are times when we need to:
- Develop incremental action plans with many elements on occasions when the reciprocity needed with our stakeholders has already been taken into account.
- Produce change or a solution in one “part of the whole.”
- Break down elemental aspects to progressively increased degrees of refinement in order to weed out variances at progressively greater levels of detail.
- Create a sequential action plan.
- Get people involved and encourage their contributions, using brainstorming or mind mapping as a side-bar to a work session.
Divergent thinking is not effective — alone, initially, or primarily — when:
- The context of work is dynamic and we must take into consideration and manage many related stakeholders, players, or impacts.
- There is a competitive consequence.
- We need to keep an organization oriented in a particular direction within a rapidly changing context.
- We wish to generate new, comprehensive thinking, rather than assemble a list of thoughts that people have already come up with.
- We are managing competing egos in order to develop new thinking and gain alignment.
Using Frameworks for Critical Thinking
A framework is the form we give a thing in relation to its purpose, a useful mental instrument that enables us to think both elementally about parts and systemically about wholes. Disciplined, critical thinking based on the use of frameworks inevitably has beneficial consequences in terms of how we organize work. It is essential to maintaining focus and orientation and developing creativity.
We use frameworks to think about phenomena and organize experiences by parceling them into units that give them shape and make them comprehensible. For example, this morning I engaged in several activities. I got up, ate, sat down at my desk, and wrote several paragraphs. Each of these activities can be viewed as a system with a distinctive purpose. Although I engaged in hundreds more actions at a much more detailed level, the form my mind gave to the morning’s experience is the list or sequence of these four activities.
Our minds always use more or less sophisticated frameworks to give form to experience, although we are mostly not aware of them. When we examine the process, we notice ourselves “chunking” things into systemic wholes, each whole serving different purposes. In the example of my morning, there is a system of actions and objects related to getting up; another relating to eating breakfast; a third related to arriving at my desk ready to work; and a fourth to thinking and writing. We give a form to each that includes a distinctive purpose, product, process, and capability.
Everyone develops and operates within personal frameworks, and it is often difficult to get enough distance from them to become conscious of the ways we use them. We need frameworks in order to operate as organized wholes, and we need the consciousness and understanding that they bring. However, they can easily become so deeply ingrained that we become reactive when someone transgresses against one of our own or one we have developed with a peer group.
The conscious, disciplined use of frameworks enlivens group processes, such as meetings, by revealing relationships between the different elements under consideration and enabling creative thought and questioning. Conducting a meeting by framework results in singularity: all of the people involved experience themselves as the integrated parts of one dynamic whole. Far from being reduced to sameness — the likely consequence of merely getting along — each distinctive, individual self is part of a unique and creative business whole. The word singular describes this phenomenon or names a systems view of it.
3. Seeking Higher Levels of Existence Versus Defending and Recovering the Current Level
Operating at a conscious level of energy includes the recognition that every organization and person has a unique identity, one that is consistent with their essence or vision. It also includes the recognition that existence is stratified and that persons and organizations seek to reach higher strata or higher orders of existence. A child grows from Little Leaguer, to college athlete, to professional baseball player. Generally speaking, as responsible beings we seek to continually perform functions and provide products that are patterns for higher orders of existence. We seek ideas and solutions good enough to produce harmony. We see ourselves as instruments to provide better futures for our families, businesses, communities, ecosystems, and governments — the living wholes in which we experience ourselves as essential parts.
We can structure our organizations to achieve beyond current their current limits. Intrinsically, people experience this way of doing business as a requirement for them to seek greater understanding and higher orders of character. Extrinsically, they see it as a requirement to be creative and responsible — to develop the ability to generate images of what can be operationalized in the effort to raise the level of existence in everything that their work affects.
Responsible leaders ensure that all work produces something of higher value and provide all members of their organizations with the ability to engage in meaningful work. They relate to people and events with equanimity and receptivity. They develop the character and the will to make a difference for the future.
4. Discovering Uniqueness Versus Assessing and Assigning Ownership
Essence is the basic inner quality that gives a thing or person their distinctive and unique character. The essence of the honeysuckle I am standing next to is its strong, sweet, distinctive smell. The essence of the wine I am drinking is the rich variety of pleasing taste sensations that it creates as I sip it. The term essence is used to characterize our experience of something. In reality, essence is that which produces the experience.
Each and every one of us possesses a unique essence. This is the enduring aspect of a person that becomes increasingly manifested as she or he grows and develops individuality over the course of a lifetime. It can be restrained, hidden, or squashed over by the demeanors that most of us learn to adopt in order to conform within social situations. Too much conforming will eventually cause a person to experience “loss of self” — to feel more like an intelligent computer than a living being.
When we become part of an energy rich and creatively oriented environment our essence emerges. We are then in a position to fully realize ourselves as persons and achieve the potential to evolve that is an inherent aspect of our being.
On the other hand, external assessment via feedback, performance reviews, and categorical systems like personality tests diminishes our ability to evolve ourselves and what we offer to the organization as a whole. Metrics assigned by leaders to evaluate performance represent an assignment of ownership for a limited measure of the outcomes we are responsible for, rather than the natural sense of ownership that arises when acting from an understanding of essence.
In part two, we’ll explore the two remaining pillars, using a systems approach and enabling self accountability, along with their associated pitfalls.