Get in the Boat: Alignment vs. Partnership in the Data/Digital/Customer Age

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by Kimberly Nevala

I recently took up sculling and joined a local boathouse. When observing a recent regatta the following thought occurred [in addition to the fact that I need to leave my work at home]. At the starting line, every boat was pointed at the same course. The objective was clear and consistent. The lanes were perfectly aligned, as were the rower’s intentions. All the rowers were team mates in the broadest sense. But when the race started? It was every boat for itself.

Discussions abound regarding enabling effective analytics or data science teams, creating meaningful customer experiences in the digital age, developing new business-IT engagement models and fostering innovation in general. What is strikingly common is the clarion call for cross-functional teams composed of diverse skills sets to support these endeavors.

As a result, organizations are quick to emphasize the need for closer alignment and relations between traditionally separate, if not competitive, organizational factions. Such teams are typically pulled together across traditional lines of business or functional boundaries – e.g. sales, marketing, service, operations, R&D, IT, and so on. Even, in some cases, including external parties such as customers and/or partners.

The problem? Alignment implies that folks remain in separate boats. Perhaps moving towards the same goal but still in distinct – if parallel – lanes.

Highly-performing (and dare I say nimble) companies recognize and are taking steps to address the subtle fault in this approach. Complete with organizational processes, practices and metrics that enforce partnership and shared accountability, not just cursory alignment. Consider companies such as Disney that hold all employees – whether you are sweeping the sidewalks or leading a board meeting – accountable for creating memorable experiences. Or the electronics manufacturer who measures both IT and the business [in this case manufacturing and R&D teams] on the same production metrics. The common theme amongst these companies and others like them? They have recognized the need to rethink traditional operating models and processes. And enforce a new way of working through shared accountability for business outcomes, reinforced by shared metrics and culpability for success or failure.

Of course, shared metrics alone don’t create highly functioning teams. Which is why such companies also invest in supportive teaming structures. From investing in designated physical space for innovation labs in which the masses can mingle, reorganizing personnel into new cross-functional reporting structures, and so on. This does not imply that resources must become jacks of all trades, seamlessly interchangeable. In fact, the opposite is true as the most competitive teams maximize distinct skills and experiences of a diverse group. That said, shared objectives and rewards do send an important signal to the organization at large that there is a new operating paradigm in place.

Yes, differentiating between alignment and partnership may seem like a semantic nit. But the hard truth is this: if team members are in separate boats when the race starts, it’s a competition. Complete with winners and losers.

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