tricordant team


Steve Hearsum

That Organisational Health Thing…how exactly do I get more of that?...

A recent report from The Oxford Review raises some interesting questions about ‘organisational health’, what it is, how it is understood, and how to achieve more of ‘it’. Nested in the report is this paragraph:

“Recent research shows that organisational health is a state where there is an alignment and convergence between the:

  • leadership
  • management
  • operations
  • strategy
  • culture
  • policies and procedures
  • employees”

The report also identifies “three overall principles of organisational health”:

  1. Capability
  2. Alignment
  3. Commitment

The word in the above that interests me is ‘alignment’, which a dictionary defines as:

  1. arrangement in a straight line or in correct relative positions – “the tiles had slipped out of alignment”.
  2. a position of agreement or alliance  – “the uncertain nature of political alignments”.

In organisational terms, my suspicion has always been that alignment is often understood to be about the latter but construed and acted on as the former. That notion that alignment is something that takes us towards a utopian state of neatness and agreement is unrealistic.   In reality, alignment is more about complementarity between views, where ‘enough’ alignment is what’s needed.

My thinking on the definition of alignment expanded recently through exposure to the work of Mirror Mirror Alignment.  This is a 5-year-old company run by Lindsay Uittenbogaard have developed a neat instrument that compares how people see their whole world at work to spot the common ground and differences. In other words, how aligned they are.

Based on research in the social sciences, their approach supports inquiry in teams and organisations into how aligned people are relationally and strategically, so opening up a much broader and useful inquiry.  When you dig into psychological safety, how people collaborate, the extent to which their views converge or diverge on team behaviours , goals/objectives/purpose etc., then you’re able to reveal and identify previously invisible issues that were unmanageable as a result.

As Lindsay puts it:

“When you share detailed data with people about how they stand in relation to each other, you’re getting the real issues on the table safely and constructively.  It’s then about facilitation, not consultation – what they get out of it immediately is increased clarity and ownership – after all it’s their data.  The end outcomes depend on what the data shows and how they deal with it, which is much less uncomfortable than people tend to imagine.”

So, with that, we’ve cracked the alignment thing, right?  Actually no. Over the past year, it has become increasingly clear to Lindsay and I that something else is going on. My own observation has been that the types of conversation that Mirror Mirror opens up actually creates anxiety for clients, and many clients say they want to be more aligned, but shy away from the conversations that requires.

More recently, Mirror Mirror ran a series of digital ad campaigns to test responses to different messages on Google and LinkedIn. The data from that revealed several things:

  1. People were NOT searching for alignment;
  2. They WERE searching for things like ‘conflict’ and ‘team building’;
  3. In addition, more detailed conversations with potential clients reveals that ‘alignment’ means something different to them:
    1. Lining up strategic goals
    2. People thinking the same thing / agreeing
    3. People falling in line with messages from the top

This raises some interesting questions.

  • When leaders and organisations and leaders say they want more ‘alignment’, what exactly do they mean?
  • Is ‘alignment’ something that matters to leaders and is viewed with cynicism by those who are being asked to align?
  • To what extent are people really up for the conversations that ‘greater alignment’– however you define it – requires?

This last point is the key, and links right back to the question of how to improve organisational health. I would argue that improving this depends on how much people are up for dialogue, for getting into their differences and surfacing assumptions about the nature of how they work, relate, talk to each other, hold each other to account and organise more generally.

Without that, the conversation about organisational health becomes another ritualistic dance of change, where words are spun and used to dodge the critical conversations rather than embrace them. Without an improved understanding of alignment, and a willingness to go underground, to get into the things that make an organisation unhealthy in the first place, all the talk of improving organisational health seem moot.

Bringing it back to the three principles above, it seems fair to ask whether you have the capability and commitment to have these conversations, before going anywhere near alignment.