Is Organizational Alignment Necessary for Success?

Creating organizational alignment. It’s the stuff of awesome posters with images of rowers all pulling with perfect precision towards the finish line. It’s the holy grail of organizational strategic development work. I’ve been among the apostles believing that a key to success for organizations delivering human services is creating a high degree of alignment around a mission or a set of common goals. In fact, I’m a fan (and user) of the Balanced Scorecard approach for organizational planning which is all about alignment. But it’s much easier said than done. And to what degree is it necessary? There is some evidence to suggest that, although some degree of alignment is necessary, a high degree of alignment doesn’t actually distinguish the good from the great when it comes to human services agencies.

While many in human services talk a good talk about alignment, my experience is that seeing it well executed is rare. As someone who has worked with dozens of organizations over the past decade, I have seen some of the very real challenges in achieving a strong sense of alignment first hand. Funders often frustrate attempts to create greater alignment by putting strict and narrow definitions around programs they fund rather than allowing for some innovation and customization based on an organization’s core values and competencies. Staff often experience conflict in trying to adhere to funder expectations while remaining grounded in the organization’s identity. In addition, not all organization’s place a high value on achieving cohesiveness grounded in a set of values or principles. While a lot of lip service is paid, mission statements simply aren’t that commonly used as a focused lens on activities and interactions.

And the research on what degree of alignment is needed for success as a non-profit is mixed. There are plenty of admonitions in the non-profit literature to develop a great mission statement and build high performance management systems and structures that are aligned with that statement. However, As Heather McLeod Grant & Leslie R. Crutchfield argue in their book “Forces for Good: The Six Practices of High Impact Non-Profits”, perfect management and textbook mission statements do not appear to determine whether an organization has impact. They are perhaps better described as ‘necessary, but not sufficient’ ingredients for success.

The bottom line? I think a certain degree of alignment with mission – that sense of common purpose that can motivate us to put in extra effort – is a good thing. And I think approaches like creating agency Logic Models or using a Balanced Scorecard can be very helpful in moving towards greater alignment. But I don’t think we should drive ourselves to distraction trying to achieve perfect alignment for its own sake. Instead, the focus should be on building mission-relevant programs that perform well by using models that are proven or have promise, creating a supportive and caring culture within which our staff can thrive, and continuously using data on service delivery to improve services over time.

Comments

  1. A thoughtful piece, nicely concluded! I think that core values are strongly connected to program models, which should support alignment…. Nonetheless, in this business, if my job is herding cats, why am I building a birdcage?

    • Warren Helfrich says:

      Good analogy! I think it’s about building solid, reflexive systems that are grounded in values or principles but that don’t constrain people from doing their jobs.

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