Align: Fifth Habit of Strategic Thinkers

habit of strategic thinkers

Your strategic thinking process does not occur in a vacuum. Successful strategy is built collaboratively, through a diverse group of participants with varied experiences all contributing to the process.  They will have multiple points of view, wide-ranging tolerances for risk, and diverse ideas regarding change. Once you as the leader have made a decision about which path to pursue, it is time to get buy-in from your team, your clients, and other stakeholders. For Paul Schoemaker this fifth habit is called Align.

The Cambridge Dictionary defines align as: 

To agree with or support another person or group, organization, or view. 

There may be a fair proportion of your organization who align with your decision immediately (remember cloning?). However, it is not something you can take for granted, even if your firm is made up of only a few people. And it is very unlikely that larger organizations will achieve complete alignment from the outset of a major move towards change.   

How do firms gain alignment? Most of them will do some version of the following:

  • Have a team meeting to describe the decision made.
  • Identify the areas impacted by the change.
  • Revise – or create new – procedures to accommodate the decision.
  • Revise – or create new – roles to deliver the functions needed.
  • Install a meeting series to keep momentum going.
  • Create metrics to measure whether the change is having the desired impact.
  • Add goals and rewards to performance evaluations related to the new direction.

After going through these steps, most firms believe they have done everything they can to get their people on board with the new road they have chosen.  Leaders believe they have thought through the mechanics of implementing the strategy and have communicated it to the team, and therefore a successful transition should occur. Yet these strategies fail at an alarming rate. 

In his 2018 HBR article “Leaders Focus Too Much on Change and Not Enough on Changing Minds,” Tony Schwartz examines this dynamic. He found that while loads of time is spent on the mechanics of executing a strategy, little time is spent thinking about how to change the minds of the people who will implement it. This is at the core of what Paul Schoemaker talks about regarding alignment:

“Consensus is rare. A strategic leader must foster open dialogue, build trust, and engage key stakeholders, especially when views diverge. To pull that off, you need to:

  • “Understand what drives other people’s agendas, including what remains hidden.
  • “Bring tough issues to the surface, even when it’s uncomfortable.
  • “Assess risk tolerance and follow through to build the necessary support.”

Alignment is the most difficult habit for leaders to achieve. In our work with advisors, we examine each of Schoemaker’s habits and have found that alignment is, by far, the one that is the most challenging. To do this properly takes time and effort to really understand your team and see them as the people that they are. It requires a safe environment, open dialogue, and a talent for persuasion. Storytelling can play a powerful role in this process to humanize the change and connect it to each person individually. 

All of this takes time, focus, and a commitment to the healthy culture it will engender. The tendency to take a short cut and play the leader card to dictate alignment is strong. But, dictated alignment is an oxymoron. Authentic alignment is only borne of healthy, trusting relationships. Authentic alignment comes from strong cultures. 

In an earlier post, we talked about the importance of building a culture based on open communication, clarity of vision, and safe spaces to speak your mind. Such a culture allows people to contribute to the strategic process effectively, bringing their interpretations of trends and events to the table. Culture is critical, too, to the successful implementation of strategy over the long-run.

What are your feelings? What do you do to understand the inner world of your team members? How do create an environment in which they feel comfortable sharing their own agendas, their concerns, and their tolerance for risk? How much time do you spend each week working on your firm’s culture?