Real Leaders

Leaders Must Learn to Identify Friction to Achieve Better Results

Happy mature businesswoman standing with her hands in pocket outside an auditorium. Smiling female entrepreneur outside convention center.

It’s impossible and not even desirable for an organization to orchestrate the actions of each individual—the situation on the ground changes monthly, weekly, or even hourly. The organization’s supervisors and frontline workers want and need to make their own decisions in ways that they interpret to be best for the organization. To create alignment so that execution flows smoothly, leaders need to play a role as the organizational architect.

Ensuring that those thousands of micro-decisions, taken as a whole, move the organization in the right direction means that leaders must ensure their systems, structures, processes, and culture are all in alignment. Each of these must be crafted to support the overall strategic intent. 

Unfortunately, misalignment is far more common than alignment. As competitive strategy evolves at an ever-faster pace in response to faster-changing business environments, organizations often find their architecture is aligned to an old, out-of-date strategy. Such misalignment slows execution. 

Those systems, structures, processes, and culture are the “nature” of the organization and misaligned with its competitive strategy; people tend to default to old habits. The nature of the organization trumps its strategic intent. People do what they’re rewarded for, even if those actions aren’t advancing the strategy. As a result, their work isn’t as productive as it should be. Execution of the strategy is inconsistent, slow, and unresponsive to rapid changes in the competitive environment. There’s too much friction in the organizational gears.

It’s easier to see the symptoms of misalignment than it is to identify precisely what is misaligned. For example:

A supervisor in a factory resisted a change to his production line. Everyone else in the organization understood and supported the move, yet it took several months for the supervisor’s line to fully integrate the change. Why? Even though the company was much better off, the supervisor was concerned his bonus was going to be negatively impacted by the change.

A general manager in a company was asked to integrate more effectively with a sister division. He fully understood it was the right thing to do, and his bonus incentives rewarded him for doing it. But, his boss had told him previously that keeping his job was based solely on how his operation performed.

Sales and service reps in a company were paid 100 percent on their individual performance. While the strategy of the company once focused on simply acquiring as many customers as possible, it evolved into delivering superior service to its customers. This change required those reps to coordinate with each other, but their compensation unequivocally rewarded individual accomplishment. Until the system of compensation changed, the behavior remained as before.

In each case, the companies suffered from organizational friction. They tried to live with it rather than fix it until the friction became almost unbearable. That’s understandable. Correcting misalignment often requires a fundamental shake-up in how an organization goes about its business. That’s difficult for any number of reasons, including:

Sometimes, leaders don’t even see the friction that’s created by misalignment in the organizational architecture.

Other times leaders implicitly accept the systems, structures, processes, and culture that exist, not recognizing the role they could or should play in changing them. It’s a little like living next to the train tracks — you don’t hear the train’s sound anymore, yet anyone who visits can’t drown it out.

It can be frightening to start meddling with systems, structures, processes, and culture. As a leader, it’s hard to feel confident about a change that’s unfamiliar to everyone in the organization. The benefits occur in the future, while the discomfort of change will be felt today. 

Yet, when you are the organizational architect and work to ensure alignment that had been out of whack, the results can be immediate and dramatic. It’s like the alignment you feel when you leave the repair shop that has stopped your car from pulling to the left. Execution of your strategy begins to flow freely once your architecture aligns with it.

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