Beware the Word “Alignment”

James L. McQuivey
Vice President, Principal Analyst
March 10, 2017

Another Friday lesson on corporate-speak. Last week I shared how wrong it is to be "right?" and I hope you are secretly forwarding that note to every offender in your organization. Today, I'm here to save you from the equally egregious word "alignment." A seemingly simple word, one that baas like a gentle lamb on a hilly, green pasture. Except this lamb is sheep in the most despicable of wolves' clothing. To be aligned with something literally means to be arranged in a straight line. When someone invites you to be aligned with them, they think they are saying, "let's be on the same side," "let's have a shared perspective," or "let's not seem like we're in disagreement here." All of those meanings sound good — we are teammates, we collaborate, we know how to work across silos! But none of them are what people really mean when, in an interdepartmental meeting someone says, "We need to make sure that we're in alignment on this."

What they truly mean is, "I've listened to you blather on long enough. You are wrong and I am right and you need to start pretending that you agree with me or we're going to have real problems here."

Don't think I've nailed it? Go on, try it. Replace the "we need to be in alignment" phrase from any alignment conversation you have had recently with my handy translation and see if it fits. You'll see that it does. Even when said with a smile, alignment is rarely used as anything other than a threat. The person who says it usually thinks that they will prevail once their side and your side get in a room behind closed doors. Or, the person who says it is a superior, addressing lesser beings and encouraging them to get "aligned," or else. Either way, it's coercion dressed up like collaboration.  

And it stinks. Actual alignment is not necessarily evil. I get that in the end decisions have to be made and companies have to move together in a single direction. The alignment I fight against is the subtler and more harmful alignment. The one that says, "Not only do I want you to agree to move forward, I want you to pretend that forward is the only possible direction that any good person could possibly want to move." It's an alignment that turns smart people into complacent puppets. It's an alignment that reduces the incentive to voice competing or complementary points of view. It's a thought killer. Ironically, that's precisely why it is used so much. Nothing is as threatening to our minds as an external idea that we can't reconcile with our chosen actions. Either our actions have to be right or the idea does. Naturally, when forced to choose, we will favor our action over somebody else's ideas.

Except that it doesn't have to be like that. You can keep two opposing ideas in your mind at the same time without exploding. In two decades of advising companies through change after change — into the Web era, through the social explosion, headlong into mobile, and now into the age of the customer — I have obseved that those organizations that can tolerate more than one way to see something are healthier and more likely to innovate than the organizations that insists on one, boss-approved way of seeing things. I have also observed that such organizations are in the minority.

Which is great news to those of you who can do this well, because you have an advantage. For those of you who find that you are constantly pushing for alignment, I want to give you an easy script to follow that will free you from your own tyranny. Next time there are two opposing views on how to do something, instead of saying, "We need to get in alignment on this," say, "Those are very interesting competing theories. I've decided to pick theory A, and here's why [insert rational, customer-focused explanation here]. But I want to test the viability of theory B because I agree that this situation is more richly nuanced than I can sort through on my own. How do you recommend we test theory B?"

A couple of smart things happened here: 1) you turned it back to the person who proposed theory B, giving them the chance to own their viewpoint and operationalize it — someone who is just being troublesome will sidestep the chance to test the theory while someone really passionate about theory B will step up to the chance to test their idea, especially if you make it clear that you value testing even if the theory does not prove true in the end; and 2) you got to say the term "richly nuanced," which is a three-dollar-bill of a term that basically says, "I'm smart enough to say this phrase, but I'm willing to admit I'm not smart enough to know everything, that's why I value your input, now and in the future."

Now, are we in alignment here?

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James McQuivey, Ph.D., is a vice-president and principal analyst at Forrester. He is also the author of the book, Digital Disruption, one which he hopes you are in alignment with.

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