In his 1989 work Mintzberg on Management, Henry Minztberg describes professional organizations as “seemingly upside-down organizations, where the workers sometimes appear to manage the bosses.”  Mintzberg notes that he himself works in a professional organization (at McGill University in Toronto) at least partially “because it is the one place in the world where you can act as if you [are] self-employed [and] yet regularly receive a paycheck.”

My work with organizations yields a similar understanding.  One of the striking attributes of professional services firms is the incredible autonomy enjoyed by practicing professionals, often alongside an apparent ’line item veto’ on almost every dimension and decision of the firm’s practice and business.  Professionals within the firm vary widely in their interest, focus, commitment, and compliance with the firm’s business.    Frankly in some companies it’s a wonder how anything ever gets done.

Leaders of these professional organizations sometimes wear themselves out in effort and frustration, working to build bridges across disciplines, practices, client teams, and studios.  Creating a “one company” business and culture is increasingly important in today’s rapidly evolving, globalizing, Fast Future! world – but achieving this supra-alignment is as difficult today as ever.

One exercise I employ with senior leaders is to look critically at alignment efforts and progress to date, against what I call the “pull-push-pull” cycle of organization development.  The idea is that all organizations undergoing change and transition progress through a path that includes these three steps:

1)      Pull (Out) – In the first phase senior leaders work to define vision – the overarching objectives, strategic direction, and aspirational destination for the firm.  At this point these leaders are typically out in front of others, and they must work to “pull” colleagues along – out of the (apparent) security of the status quo, of individual and collective comfort zones.  Some staff will respond enthusiastically, others with ambivalence, still others with anxiety and fear.  Some will embrace, some resist (deadweight), and other will actively fight. Challenging work

2)      Push (Out) – As the team coalesces over time, developing clarity and consensus around the vision and strategic thrust, the organization builds momentum, others become increasingly involved, and the leader’s position transitions into a ‘pushing’ role.  Now dependent on the successful execution of those who’ve assumed responsibility, the leader must push (encourage, cajole, nudge, leaning on, shove), others as needed to sustain progress.  This too can be exhausting work.  Professionals (usually well intentioned) often have limited experience with business improvement, tend to overpromise and under deliver on these efforts, and commonly let one another off the hook because “they’ve been busy with client work.” At times senior leaders may feel they’re the only ones committed to the goal.

3)      Pull (In) – In the final (and most elusive) step, the team achieves considerable vision-driven organization alignment.  As more engage in this effort, and as individuals and teams develop in capabilities and results, senior leaders will again experience a change of force – towards a need for reining in – pulling back.  Indeed, at this point the organization is outrunning the pace, perspective, and comfort zone of senior leaders themselves.  But this is a positive outcome, because the firm is now in a position of abundance – with more initiative, engagement, and opportunity than it can perhaps accommodate.   Leaders must now exert their influence, and leverage their experience and maturity, to make tougher choices to establish priority, focus, and discipline within the organization.

Unfortunately many firms fail to reach this “pull in” level of alignment.  Those that do really stand out, outperforming the pack.  Those that don’t remain at least partially misaligned, and are led by frustrated, discouraged, and often exhausted, leaders (who wonder why so many of their staff aren’t’ doing more of the heavy lifting themselves, or why they “don’t seem to get it.”)

Ultimately success with organization alignment comes down to the “four C’s” of clarity, consensus, commitment, and communication.  Clarity in the dream itself – the vision destination and chosen path forward.  Consensus in agreeing to the firm’s strategic thrust and priority objectives.  Commitment to individual and personal involvement, action, and performance. And lots of communication, because the journey to success is a long and difficult road, fraught with challenge, uncertainty, and change.

Indeed, organization alignment is difficult – especially in a firm where ‘one can act as if you’re self-employed while regularly receiving a paycheck.’  Achieving alignment requires a great deal of effort from senior leaders, and over a sustained period of time. A culture of alignment and collaboration must be built up (and in some cases created from scratch) and then nurtured to strength.  When organizations succeed in this work, leaders realize a payoff for their efforts, and a shift from pulling and pushing others toward action, to a different role of pulling back, and focusing, guiding, and supporting the team moving forward.

That’s what I think.  How about you?



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