Only 9% of leaders can rely on their peers

Bill Belichick, Tom Brady of the Patriots would never have won Superbowl 51 if the rest of the team wasn’t onboard with their plays. Can you imagine if each player had their own plan on how to win? Chaos would ensue. And the Falcons would have been champion.

In sports, just like in business, each player must agree on the strategy to win.

What does my boss want?

Fortunately, most organizations successfully attain vertical alignment. That is, most people concur with their supervisor’s priorities.

Donald Sull from MIT Sloan reports in his research that “84% of managers say they can rely on their boss and their direct reports all or most of the time.”

Studies outside of business strategy report similar obedience to authority. In a famous experiment by Stanley Milgram, it was found that people will comply with commands from figure of authority even if they disagree with them.

Do I have to help others?

On the other hand, horizontal alignment is a great challenge. We don’t always agree with peers from other teams, other departments.

In the same research, Sull reports that many organizations suffer from alignment issues across teams reporting to different leaders:

“Only 9% of managers say they can rely on colleagues in other functions and units all the time, and just half say they can rely on them most of the time. Commitments from these colleagues are typically not much more reliable than promises made by external partners, such as distributors and suppliers.

When asked to identify the single greatest challenge to executing their company’s strategy, 30% cite failure to coordinate across units… Managers also say they are three times more likely to miss performance commitments because of insufficient support from other units than because of their own teams’ failure to deliver.”

If we think about it for a second, most companies’ organization structure don’t actually incentivize horizontal alignment. By segmenting people by function, leaders are bound to have different priorities. They see problems from different perspectives and don’t empathize with each other. And when time comes to prioritize initiatives, people only focus on what is most important to their boss, their department.

For example, sales teams may prioritize the need to meet this quarter’s quota by adamantly selling newly a launched product, whereas engineering and manufacturing teams may prioritize quality control and limit how many new models to produce. This type of conflict pit one team against another.

What’s the outcome? Research by the Economist Intelligence Unit reveals in a study that the “main obstacles to improved business responsiveness are slow decision-making, [fueled by] conflicting departmental goals and priorities, risk-averse cultures and silo-based information.”

We must work together, else we’re all doomed

To further explore the problem of horizontal alignment, let’s review the concept of system thinking. Professor Russel L. Ackoff, a leader in the field, explains system thinking:

“A System as a whole consists of parts, each of which can affect its behavior or properties… Each part of the system when it affects the system is dependent for its effect on some other part… No part of the system or collection of parts in a system has an independent effect on it… A system as a whole cannot be divided into independent parts… The essential property of defining property of any system is the property of a whole that none of its parts has.

For example… The essential property of an automobile is that it can carry you from one place to another. No part of an automobile can do that. The wheel can’t; the axel can’t; the motor can’t… but the automobile can.”

Ackoff used the analogy to describe an organization, which in essence is a system formed of many parts, of many functional teams. Together, a firm can add value to raw inputs and sell them at a profit. But none of the individual teams can. The marketing team can’t do that alone, nor can the engineering team. Teams must work together to win.

Prof. Ackoff goes on to illustrate the importance of how parts interact with each other as critical to the functionality of the system. He describes in an example how assembling a car using the best engine in the world, the best transmission in the world, so forth and so on, will not produce a working automobile. Because “the parts don’t fit.

Teams must work together to win.

In that perspective, it’s even more challenging to design a well-oiled organization. The transmission we choose to install in a car doesn’t have a mind of its own. Managers do. Teams do.

Empathy is key

Leaders must agree on what problems represent priorities for the organization to execute strategy.

On that aspect, it’s been found that the less we empathize with other teams, the less we are able to agree with them. Susan L. Kline, professor of communication at Ohio State University, reveals in her research:

“Highly differentiated refusers do not necessarily compromise or empathize with the other; rather they provide compelling descriptions of the refuser’s position and explicit inducements for the other to agree… More differentiated individuals engage in “message-fitting” practices that especially entice the hearer to believe in the conveyed message.”

When it comes to business leaders, the need to protect their teams’ well-being often contributes to unempathetic behavior. A strategy researcher from Harvard Business School we interviewed shared that strategic disagreements tend to arise when

…people get defensive. They argue for a point of view that favors them instead of the entire organization. They could object or agree depending on how a decision affects them specifically. Whether it will help their part of the organization.”

Why do leaders get defensive? As with any changes in life, leaders can perceive strategic changes as threats. In turn, they engage in defensive and close-minded behavior, obstructing their ability to empathize.

When asked how to cope with that problem, the Harvard strategist describe shared the need for leaders “to enforce what’s best for organization. Try to be open minded and play as a single team, rather than independent teams.

Next time we talk strategy, let’s make sure to periodically remind everyone that we’re on the same team. That we share the same goals.


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