The other day, while at a hardware store, my 7-year- old daughter offered to push a shopping cart while I retrieved the things we needed. I know she likes pushing the cart so I happily agreed. What I did not realize was that the cart’s four wheels could spin horizontally 360° independently, thereby permitting the whole cart to rotate about its vertical axis. This feature can, often times, be very convenient in a crowded store. Although, as one can imagine, it is not so useful when the cart is heavier than the kid pushing it!
The further we walked up an aisle, the more my daughter struggled to keep the cart pointed in the right direction. The cart began to list to the right. At this point, ignoring her protestations, I placed myself to the right of the cart, and, with my hand affixed to the side, leaned in and guided the cart back to our desired course. And so together, with my child pushing forward while I pushed leftward, the cart proceeded along the path, with our net vector getting us down the aisle. My daughter, as well as the ankles of other shoppers, were happy thereafter.
I was reminded of this the other day when a work colleague and I began a discussion of business goals and personal objectives. Within this emerging business, plans do change frequently, and objectives need to be flexible enough to fit within those plans. What adds to the challenge is that roles within an organization are highly distinct from one another. Therefore, in order to ensure that a team, or small organization, can focus and achieve flexible objectives that are meant to address business goals, one’s personal objectives must have some sense of alignment to others’ objectives – usually formalized within the business goals themselves.
There is a danger to having perfect alignment or “all ships pointed in the same direction”. By forcing all team members to look in the same direction, unanticipated events can set an entire team careening off in the wrong direction – much like an unwieldy grocery cart listing to one side or the other. I have seen this in organizations where sales teams dominate, driving the team to deliver products not ready for the market, and leading to failed initiatives.
On the other hand, a lack of alignment would cause a company to simply spin in place, unable to make sense of competing objectives to reach goals. I have seen this too, where the objectives of technical leaders and business leaders are in opposition, effectively cancelling out any kind of progress towards the main business goals. In fact, the goal becomes muddled with all objectives pointing to opposing directions, leading to a net zero vector – a grocery cart spinning in place and going nowhere.
In Cyclica’s business, there exists a core group of good talented people whose roles drive the business forward. They are the ones who seek the clients, who write the specifications and scope, who do the analysis, who create the tools, and do the research. And there are also a group outside this core whose roles are not pointed forward, but moving from the flanks, towards the centre, providing much needed development, support and management, all in an effort to keep this business on course.
If support roles are too strong and uncoordinated in their contribution from the flanks – like in my leaders-at- odds example, the lack of alignment would cause initiatives to suffer because of the absence of agreement on the main business focus and where to prioritize resources. Decisions will not be made effectively and the business will begin to spin and dither.
If support roles are too weak and acquiesce thereby creating perfect alignment – like in my sales driven example, client delivery suffers as the core group would not be able to effectively execute on their client commitments; the resulting panic and rush leading to poor productivity and erratic output where urgency is not well understood by anyone, causing the business to list and potentially stagnate in its mission (the impact this has on an organization has already been discussed in our piece on “Fostering a Productive Fluid Work Environment”).
With some skill, and some good choices, Cyclica’s net vector has, and will continue to, consistently point along the path to achievement. Where and when this net vector strays from its target, the business is well equipped to adjust from the flanks, and move forward with goals and mission in full view.
Finally, let us remember that a vector has as its attributes both direction and magnitude. We have focused on direction here. We’ll touch on magnitude in part II of this discussion. Stay tuned.