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Business Alignment: optimising functions, process and culture – and markets

Someone asked me recently what I meant when I stood up and explained what I did as a facilitator of business alignment. Maybe I’ve not always explained as clearly as I could or should have. So this is it.
It’s obvious that it helps to be aligned across functions to plan and execute to a clear business purpose. But from what I’ve seen in businesses it’s not often the case. The outcome being poor speed to market, flexibility, productivity and morale. So what are the key factors? Here are the factors I consider crucial:
• Articulating the business purpose
• Functional alignment
• Business processes – internally and externally-facing
• Culture
Business Purpose
Most businesses - but not all – will have some kind of stated purpose. Normally articulated in a Business or Marketing Plan. Its value, even for an SME (of two or more!), is to align what you do with where you are going. It’s a good start as it deals with the old ‘Fail to plan…’ chestnut. But even if you do it, it’s easy to take a detour because you individually believe in something or you become collectively preoccupied with a new phenomenon. But if it’s not in the plan it is a distraction. Of course, plans can, indeed should, change. That’s the benefit of a review loop. And plans, even the best thought out ones, are no good in the drawer so if that’s where they normally end up, you’re heading for trouble. Finally you also need to communicate it - as widely as possible. Out of this fundamental act springs all the other aspects.
Functional Alignment
That is, ensuring that each function (or department) in the business is working towards the same (planned) end rather than their own agendas. How could that possibly happen? Simple: as a separate discussion outside the plan itself, a functional head is tasked with a discrete objective that doesn’t necessarily appear in the main plan. This often happens as part of the setting of senior team personal performance objectives. For example, a Buyer is asked by his Ops Director to save £250k in raw ingredient costs. It might be part of the main plan but the vital ‘why’ has not been communicated. It’s just a line in his Personal Development Plan He opts to focus on the highest cost item – which is also the scarcest. He tenders and selects a new supplier. There are interruptions. His spend goes down £250k (bonus secured!) but factory output and efficiency – as well as customer fulfilment and satisfaction – tanks. Unless KPIs - and bonuses - are aligned across the whole business and based on the delivery of the central plan, you are asking for dislocation and strife. And a business purpose wheel comes off along the way. The evidence of this is adversarial politics and posturing. Sales, as the guardian of customers will lock horns with unhelpful and inflexible Operations. Wasted meetings, bad feelings and time lost in all the blaming. Sometimes it takes an external party to help see the wood for the trees and focus on issues rather than people.
Business Processes
There are two aspects that matter for me. The first is that the process of creating an end product (whether tangible or intangible) needs clarity, predictability and accountability. As organisations grow, this becomes more complex to manage. But if the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing, why it is doing it and what will help it to run optimally, then the rot can set in. And that’s just the ‘business as usual’ stuff. Add in initiatives such as Continuous Improvement (CI), New Product Development (NPD) programmes and other curve balls and you have plenty of scope for turbulence. Unless these aspects are made an explicit part of the plan, there is the wiggle room to interpret both CI and NPD as non-core ‘nice to haves’ or something for Friday afternoons. And disengagement and half-heartedness start right there; with predictable outcomes. The solution? Make them core, highly visible and regularly reinforce the reasons for doing them – to survive, compete and deliver the plan. And when the happen, celebrate the successes. Change is a whole critical business issue in itself and it often happens despite rather than because of natural inclinations. So praise is a vital way to make it stick.
It doesn’t help that ‘culture’ (like innovation) can be held open to wide and individual interpreted in the absence of a clear statement of what it does mean within the individual organisation. And does it exist, or matter anyway? Yes. It is a way of doing things: ‘it ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it…’ as the song goes. That is indeed what gets results. Metaphors like orchestras or football team positions are also sometimes useful. You can be a talented individual with huge focus, but business is mostly a team sport. Culture is therefore about forming and keeping common values: because you will then understand and respect the others around you, even if they will never be your drinking buddies. It is also sometimes insightful to try profiling exercises like the Belbin model to see what your team looks like. Quite often, dysfunctional teams have come to realise that they are so precisely because they are all centre-forwards or trombonists. After that, individual positive behaviours are important and with healthy and constructive ones tending to be based around the concept of ‘assertiveness’ (i.e. ‘I’m OK, you’re OK’), where it is the issue that matters, not how you got there or who is to blame. This creates tremendous focus and energy that is otherwise dissipated in finger-pointing and emotional stress. Sometimes quite intensive coaching is required to adjust behaviours, but I’ve found that it is this interactional aspect that delivers the transformational improvements. Many businesses now have access to similar technology and process expertise. These are incrementally improved with strong IT focus and implementation of PRINCE2 or Agile/Lean techniques. But even these rely very heavily on the human aspects of good quality interaction. And when that works well, it goes on to create a virtuous circle along with the other points above. It becomes the oil in the machine.
So in summary, these four points are the cornerstones of effective business alignment. For success they all need to be present and correct. Some of these, like planning, are simple concepts that are surprisingly absent, or just not communicated effectively. The alignment required is a continuum that connects your markets and customers with the things you supply to them. Effective process creates the conduit. Culture, as an effective default behaviour and mindset, is how clarity of purpose moves back and forth along the conduit: from what the market wants (as captured by Marketers) to what can be consistently delivered to its satisfaction (as delivered by Operations). The trick is creating an environment where there is a positive and healthy flow rather than obstruction or stasis.
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