Getting your ducks in a row

Leaders’ capacity for changing strategic direction – and building alignment around the new approach – is critical to their success in an uncertain world.

Covid-19 has changed the world in countless ways, from the grave, profound and lasting to the trivial. Somewhere in the middle of that scale sits the impact on a host of business authors who released books in late 2019 or early 2020, only to find them suddenly looking out of touch with a world changed almost beyond recognition.

Re:Align is a product of that dynamic. Written by Jonathan Trevor, an associate professor of management practice at the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School, it is a reworking of 2019’s Align, building on discussions sparked by the unfolding pandemic.

Trevor starts from first principles. In any sector, organizations – or enterprises, as he refers to them – are “a vital part of the human experience”. They are “essential to our economic and social well-being, both collectively and personally”. So, he asks, “shouldn’t we really care about how to make them function as best as possible?”

Re:Align is Trevor’s contribution to that task. As such, it is ambitious in range and scope, and a fairly heavyweight tome that aims to provide a bridge between theory and practice. But it flows smoothly, switching between storytelling mode and the exposition of key concepts. While packed with ideas and models for leaders to apply in their businesses, it never goes ‘full textbook’. It is engagingly written too, with a lightness of touch that makes the forays into management theory accessible: “stick with me on this”, writes Trevor, in an early explanation of the difference between “universalists” and “contingency theorists”.

That distinction is, in fact, critical to the book’s entire premise. Trevor is in the latter camp. It is a school of thinking that rejects notions of universal best practice: instead, contingency theorists hold that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to management. For Trevor, the best management practice is the one that best fits – or aligns – to the unique context of each enterprise. It is a view he believes most leaders agree with intuitively.

As such, Re:Align never claims to offer leaders all the answers, or to paint a picture of how leaders should run their businesses, either. What works for one business is not what will work for another. This is a point Trevor makes repeatedly. Which type of strategy is best? It depends. What is the ideal form of organizational architecture? It depends. What should the approach be to the organization’s core people, culture or work processes? No surprises: it depends. The key is the alignment of the whole.

As an example, Trevor highlights fast-food giant McDonald’s and the semi-conductor chip manufacturer, ARM. Where McDonald’s sets out rigid standards and ways of working for its restaurants around the world, ARM flexibly leverages the knowledge of thousands of external partners, including researchers and other companies. “If McDonald’s resembles a superbly machined engine, ARM resembles an organic network,” writes Trevor. They are two highly successful companies that seem to share very little in common. Yet, he says, this is the wrong conclusion, “because the source of their success is the same – the strength of their alignment”.

Alignment and re-alignment

The idea of alignment is far from new, Trevor admits. Most leaders know that aligning the core elements of their enterprise, including its strategy and how it is organized, is critical to performance. Yet it means different things to different people, and leaders grasp for informal terms – “We need to get our ducks in a row” – because they lack a robust system of thought, or blueprint, for achieving alignment. The result: “Thousands of enterprises globally are operating below their potential because they are poorly aligned.”

For Trevor, alignment ties together purpose and strategy, organizational capability and architecture, and management systems. Highly aligned enterprises, he writes, “are typically the most purposeful, customer-aligned, capable and resilient competitors in any field. They experience the highest employee engagement scores and the strongest commitment to stated enterprise values.” By contrast, misalignment shows up in conflicting interests and turf wars, unclear vision or direction, resistance to change, high levels of waste and inefficiency, and mistrust.

Where Re:Align builds on the original book is in recognizing the fundamental truth that today’s business environment is volatile and continually changing. Trevor defines strategic realignment as, “the act of not merely reacting to disruption in the short term but treating it as an opportunity to proactively transform the core elements that make up every enterprise to be a better fit for the future business environment.” In other words, it is about emerging from disruption stronger than before.

Crucially, misalignment does not necessarily equal poor performance. Instead, it creates unnecessary risk and value-destroying behaviour, in the form of dysfunction, wasted effort, reckless conduct and misallocated resources. Trevor points out that misalignment can be a by-product of success: many firms become incredibly complex as they expand, enter new markets or make acquisitions. That often creates ‘wicked problems’, for which there are no obvious or easy solutions, he adds. Strategic alignment offers one way of finding potential solutions to such problems.

Leaders’ choices

As Trevor points out, alignment “does not occur naturally or by accident”. Our organizations are social constructs – the result of human choices – and alignment is no different. It occurs “purely as a result of reasoned strategic choice (and perhaps a dash of luck)”. In the final analysis, he concludes, the quality of leadership makes all the difference to whether an organization is aligned, and whether it is a success or a failure.

It is engagingly written, with a lightness of touch that makes forays into management theory accessible.

So, is Re:Align worth reading? As Trevor quips in response to one of his own rhetorical questions, “The only correct answer for a contingency theorist is, of course: it depends!” But put it this way: if you are looking for a thought-provoking set of ideas, practical tools, and a source of inspiration for reimagining the strategic direction of your business, then the answer is very likely to be ‘yes’.

Patrick Woodman is editor of Dialogue.