Ask any CEO if they value the concept of alignment and they’ll be spouting its virtues before you finish the question. But true top-to-bottom alignment — that rarified state characterized by an organization whose employees (all of them) understand the strategy and how they uniquely contribute to its successful execution — is unicorn rare. In an attempt to create it, many companies turn to the concept of cascaded goals: Start at the top and have goals flow down throughout the organization in a manner that allows teams at every level to track their own aligned and meaningful metrics. As part of this conversation, you’ll often hear leaders espousing the value of having teams “commit to their goals.”
In many cases, however, it’s virtually impossible for employees to commit to goals because of the method of cascading that is applied. In a disturbingly large number of companies, despite emerging neuroscience and years of evidence, senior management still rely on the old model of forcing goals — those they believe will have the greatest impact on execution — down to lower levels, with no room for negotiation or compromise. Lip service may be paid to involving everyone in setting goals across the company, but when push comes to shove it’s the senior leadership team that is dictating what is tracked at each and every level, month in and month out.
This antiquated approach is doomed for a number of reasons, but let’s focus on just one, represented by a single word that was introduced in the first paragraph: commit. This verb, which can be traced to the late fourteenth century, comes from the Latin “committere,” meaning “to entrust, unite, combine, or bring together.” When, as a senior manager, you push goals down to the next level, inhibiting any discussion or room for individual adjustments, the last thing you’re doing is entrusting, uniting, combining, or bringing together. Actually, the opposite is true. You’re showing a complete lack of trust in the judgment of your teams, which will inevitably sow seeds of skepticism and hamper initiative in reaching the goals you alone consider worth pursuing. After all, who is going to commit to something they had no part in creating?
If you want true commitment, try this:
- Foster a meaningful dialog with your teams Allow them to thoughtfully consider and recommend the objectives they feel maximize their impact and have the greatest effect on overall company execution. When you do so, you are in fact entrusting, uniting, combining, and bringing together. Additionally, this simple and pragmatic process enables your team to create an emotional attachment to the goals, since they themselves were responsible for their creation.
- Allow room for negotiation in the process You should strive to engage your teams in a spirited discussion and negotiation. It’s not a matter of one side winning or losing. It’s about finding the right objectives for all teams and individuals, those that facilitate alignment from top to bottom and accelerate your execution.
- Be open to new ideas One of the biases that hampers effective performance measurement is a fixation on the status quo. In other words, it’s always easier to measure what you’ve always measured. However, it’s often the new and missing measures that drive the greatest value in advancing your strategic agenda. Give your teams the latitude to imagine the metrics that truly matter to them, even if some of them are entirely new.
The legendary American football coach Vince Lombardi once remarked, “Individual commitment to a group effort — that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work.” When the time comes to align goals from top to bottom, ensuring your team or organization “works,” start by adhering to the true meaning of commitment.