How to Overcome Barriers in Your Company’s Strategic Alignment to Achieve Transformation

Forward-thinking Learning and Development professionals can better manage their transformation plan by turning participants into teachers, tapping into the minds of internal and external experts, and making use of new learning technologies.

The best-performing companies often are strategically aligned. They understand transformation is necessary to stay competitive and fulfill their missions in a complex business world filled with unprecedented degrees of difficulty and challenges, and to transform successfully, they must accelerate the pace of building critical senior-level alignment and strategic direction. In turn, this requires constructing new and revising existing strategies, and even launching large-scale transformation programs to execute on those strategies.

But what does strategic alignment look like in practice? Take McDonald’s, for instance. In order to serve the 70 million customers worldwide that it does on a daily basis, the organization has efficiently transformed its operations and processes to support its product-centric strategy. By focusing leaders’ attention on designing and managing scalable processes and routines, the company is superior in selling standardized products around the globe at predictable volumes, quality, and cost. With an efficient organizational design that includes formalized hierarchies of performance accountability, a high division of labor, routinization of specialist tasks, and teamwork at the point of sale, McDonald’s has maintained its stronghold as a sector leader for decades and is a prime example of the power of strategic alignment through transformation.

In aligned organizations, a new strategy is more likely to deliver anticipated results when they’re needed. Senior leaders understand why there needs to be a shift in strategy, what aspects will be required to execute it, and what benefits it will bring to the business. Ultimately, they are accountable for helping to execute the new strategy with speed, proficiency, and broad impact—so they are able to capitalize on valuable opportunities or prevent being blindsided by emerging threats. By having a shared vision and understanding of the strategy at play, senior leaders can play a vital role in guiding their companies to achieve true alignment.

Although strategic alignment offers significant advantages, few enterprises manage to achieve it. Those who fail have paid a high price because they had difficulty executing their new or revised strategies efficiently and effectively. According to McKinsey & Co.’s 2015 study, described in “How to Beat the Transformation Odds,” only 20 to 30 percent of the executives surveyed reported successful completion of transformation initiatives in their organizations. If companies can’t reinvent themselves to adapt to changes in their business environment, they may lose their competitive advantage and their purposes will more or less go unfulfilled.

Several barriers impeding alignment include:

    1. Leaders feel a lack of ownership of the transformation program: For many organizations, the primary reason organizations fall behind is because leaders do not feel ownership in the transformation program.
    2. Intense pressure to produce results in short term—when time commitment to produce seems out of reach: Leaders of organizations are under such intense pressure to produce results in the short term that they often have difficulty shifting focus to support a new strategy that will take time to deliver results.
    3. Inconsistent messaging leading to a lack of support for direction at leadership level: Some leaders may not believe strongly in the new strategic direction of an organization, so they can’t exhibit commitment to their own teams. Transformation is impossible unless employees are willing to embrace the new strategy amidst the pressures of their day-to-day work. If communication isn’t clear and consistent, employees will have a hard time connecting with the vision and supporting the strategy. As a result, the organization suffers from a lack of needed support by those who would be executing on the strategy, and, worse, sensing a lack of direction, good employees may leave the company.

To remove or lessen some of these barriers, successful organizations use several approaches to obtain a competitive advantage, a few of which include: transformation of leaders into teachers, exposure to internal and external experts, and savvy use of learning technologies.

Transform Participants into Teachers

When leaders taking part in strategic alignment programs have a teaching role in organizational transformation, the upside is tremendous. This approach helps all leaders to be engaged in formal employee development, and brings much-needed context and direction to work. This establishes a consistent and clear message across the organization, which is especially important in times of great complexity.

Leaders-as-teachers are uniquely positioned to present concepts within their company’s specific context, and to show employees how learning aligns with business strategy and goals. This is so crucial because leaders can connect the dots for employees and help them see how the skills they learn will impact the business in the long term. It also fosters a collective sense of ownership of the new strategy and of the future organization.

Tapping into the Minds of Internal and External Experts

Engaged senior leaders are central to the organization transformation process. Organizations should engage their leaders by bringing them cutting-edge thinking about topics relevant to their organizations transformation.

By delivering external experts, such as researchers, academics, and business practitioners, leaders gain exposure to the latest research pertinent to their organization, along with exciting and relevant ideas circulating in the business world.

Drawing on internal experts, such as functional or operational leaders, is also key to developing strategic alignment during organizational transformation. These experts can link the learning content to their organization’s goals by sharing their own journeys, challenges, and successes in leadership and strategy execution.

Exposure to these stories enables leaders to build their knowledge and reflect on new insights they’re gaining from the learning experience. They also can cascade lessons they’ve learned to their own teams.

Smart Use of Learning Technology

It is no secret that there is a competitive advantage to implementing innovative approaches with strategic alignment. Savvy use of learning technologies, such as Webcasts and large cohort learning platforms, provides shared, contextualized learning experiences for senior leaders. Such experiences, in turn, encourage them to engage in spirited conversations about the change their organization wants to make. The clear understanding of the new company vision leaders have after these experience helps them understand how, as leaders, they can help—and even take ownership of—the transformation.

Technology better enables an organization to get people aligned behind the challenges and opportunities that will come with a new strategy. Everyone is able to discuss how to enhance innovation and how leaders can model the behaviors and attitudes needed to make that cultural shift. In such a setting, everyone participates together to bring new ideas and encourage experimentation.

Managing the Transformation

Strategic alignment has never been more essential for organizations across all industries. When forward-thinking Learning and Development professionals assess the common challenges their organization may be facing, they can better manage their transformation plan by turning participants into teachers, tapping into the minds of internal and external experts, and making use of new learning technologies.

When senior leaders play a vital role in helping their organizations achieve alignment, businesses can swiftly and smoothly shift direction to stay ahead of change—and their competitors.

Janice Miller is director of Leadership Programs, Product Management, at Harvard Business Publishing Corporate Learning.


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