Alignment: The Oxygen of Change #56 #cong17

By Morgan McKeagney.

Alignment - getting people agreed and pointing in the same direction - is the oxygen of getting stuff done. 

With it, small teams can move mountains, get incredible things done. Without it, nothing happens. Lack of alignment is a poison gas: a silent, odourless killer of good ideas and positive change. 

So how do you know if you’re stakeholders are aligned? And what do you do to create and maintain that alignment? 

Identify & map your stakeholders

It may seem obvious, but before you can bring people on a journey, you first have to identify who they are. 

Not all stakeholders are created equal. Some are more important than others. Different people understand, need, want different things. So a critical job is identifying who's who, and mapping where they're at, so you can hone your message and approach accordingly.

Morgan McKeagney #56 Engaging Stakeholders - Google Slides

Fig 1: Engaging Stakeholders: 2x2 Matrix, from Framlabs

At Framlabs, we use this simple 2x2 matrix to map stakeholders. Try it yourself. Draw the matrix out on an A1 sheet, grab your colleagues, some markers  & a bunch of stickies. As a project team, identify all key stakeholders, with one name per sticky. Now place each name / sticky on the appropriate quadrant, according to whether or not they UNDERSTAND and AGREE with what you're planning. 

Mapping your stakeholders is a great starting point. First, it clarifies who's impacted by your initiative, and what their attitude to it is likely to be. Second, it will highlight gaps in your own knowledge: do we really know who we need to engage and what their attitude is? Third, it's a great way of starting a discussion and sharing information across a project team. 

In an ideal world, all your stakeholders will be in the understand / agree quadrant. But in reality, things are never like that. In our experience, the most lethal combination is agree / don't understand: people who say they agree, but don't actually understand the implications for them of what you're proposing.  

So your mission, through a process of engagement, listening & communication, is to move as many stakeholders as you can up into the top-right quadrant, while keeping the detractors engaged through the process as best you can.

Tell a good story: Burning Platform & Lands of Milk & Honey

People hate change. We're built that way. It's self-preservation, encoded deep in our lizard brain. Here we're safe. Over there, we'll be eaten by savage beasts. Let's stay where we are.

Why change? It's a simple, but profound question. To get people engaged, we need a compelling reason for change. An urgent narrative that makes it clear that staying where we are is really not an option, that the risks of standing still outweigh the risks of moving forward. 

Stephen Elop understood this when he took over as Nokia CEO in February 2011. The Company was haemorrhaging market share to Apple and Android and floundering badly. To wake people up, Elop wrote his blistering "Burning Platform" memo (read the full memo here). 

Nokia was a man on a burning oil platform, he said. It didn't have the time or luxury for traditional responses. It needed to jump into the icy water, embrace the unknown, move faster than ever before. Its new reality required radical change and an embrace of new behaviours.

Of course, it didn't end well for Nokia. The diagnosis was solid (they were on a burning platform), but the cure (selling to Microsoft) failed, and ultimately killed the patient.

So an imperative for change (a burning platform) isn't enough. Your narrative also needs to create a credible picture of a better life beyond the burning platform.

Moses, that wily Old Testament prophet, understood this. He knew he couldn't just focus on burning platforms (or bushes). Negativity alone won't move mountains or part seas. 

He needed some positivity: an upside, a vision of a better future, to sustain people through the turmoil of change. 

The Moses story combines both beautifully: the Egyptians hate us & want to kill us (burning platform). But, just past that sea, there's a promised land waiting just for us (milk & honey). So let's get moving, part the oceans, and embrace change and the unknown.

Maintain Engagement: Communication & Clarity

The future is intangible and unknowable. Like Moses, you can tell a great story about a future state of milk and honey, but the here and now will always poke it's head back in. 

It's a long march from the present to some better future. There will be long periods where not a lot seems to be happening, and outputs are negligible. It's in these long gaps, that you can lose even the most committed stakeholders.

Regular, consistent communication is critical for maintaining engagement beyond that initial rush of excitement. 

Keep people informed, even if there's not a lot going on. Reiterate the mantras that made the initiative worthwhile in the first place. Showcase any progress or fresh insights. Share stories that reinforce your narrative. 

Recap: Herding Cats & Leading (Wild) Horses to Water

Hell is other people, says Sartre. As a promoter of change, your success or failure is completely dependent on other people. If you manage to engage your stakeholders, you have a chance of success. If you don't, you will most certainly fail.

Here, we've focused on just three things that can help create alignment: clarity about who your stakeholders are, telling a compelling change story, and regular, consistent, authentic communication.

But human engagement is complex and messy: like herding cats, or leading (wild) horses to water. There's no silver bullet. And there's lots of critical stuff we haven't touched on: purpose, shared goals and values, culture, empowerment, incentives. 

So this is just the start of a dialogue. What's worked for you in your organisation? How have you failed? What else can we do? We’d love to hear your war stories and experiences.

CongRegation © Eoin Kennedy 2017 eoin at congregation dot ie