Change   Culture

How to ensure strategic alignment in a distributed world

All around the world, governments are scrambling to get their countries and economies “back to normal.” But while our societies are starting to open, the world as we knew it has changed irrevocably. There is no normal to go back to. There’s only the next normal. And organizations that hope to be successful in the next economy must adapt and evolve—and right away.

A distributed workforce will be an undeniable part of our next normal. Which means that a priority for all organizations should be mastering strategic alignment in a distributed world.

The pandemic gave us a preview of what a distributed workforce looks like. And we learned that, in its current state, it poses a serious challenge to strategic alignment. We saw that when a workforce is distributed, it quickly becomes challenging to create and share a common vision, sense of direction and company values, ethics and standards. Silos become more entrenched, cross-functional collaboration becomes nearly impossible, and productive, working conversations among peers all but disappear.

Our go-to tools are not designed for strategic alignment

Technological solutions abound to help us stay more connected while we’re physically separated. Digital tools like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Slack and others are promising to keep us collaborating and communicating by letting us virtually simulate our town-halls, meetings, workshops and one-on-ones.

But we still haven’t found a way to digitally replicate the one thing that determines whether an organization is or isn’t aligned—and that is the informal conversations among peers.

I’m thinking about the coffee break where one executive asks another: “About our 2024 strategy – Do you think we can change our production to meet the demands for more tailor-made products? And don’t you think it will take more time than we have?”

I’m thinking about two managers who, after leaving their weekly leadership meeting, linger in the hallway to discuss best ways to communicate the new corporate strategy to their respective teams. And two employees discussing ways to fix a problem in one of the production lines while standing in line at the cafeteria.

Before the pandemic and the lockdowns, our organizations were buzzing with this kind of conversation. As a matter of fact, some academics argue that this kind of conversation comprises 70% of overall organizational communication. And for good reasons. These informal side-to-side conversations are the "pulse" of an organization. They are what keeps organizations learning, innovating and ultimately aligned.

Informal conversations are the glue that makes formal communication work

We are all familiar with formal communications strategies. There’s the top-down communication where senior executives communicate important changes and decisions. It looks like town-halls, memos, polished brochures designed by strategic communications firms or internal communications departments.

And there’s the bottom-up communication, which looks like feedback, pulse checks, and insights based on frontline experiences. They’re the purview of HR departments and most often look like annual employee engagement surveys.

Companies all over the world spend a lot of time and money designing, planning and executing these internal communication initiatives, and yet, research on organizational culture shows that it’s not the formal communication strategies and initiatives that determine whether a company succeeds, but the informal conversations and cross-functional collaboration.

It’s the side-to-side communication happening prior, during and after the top-down and bottom-up communication that determines whether the polished brochures and engagement surveys will have any effect.

So, if side-to-side conversations are the glue that makes all other business communication happen, why do we leave it to chance? If informal conversations and collaboration is what makes organizations productive, agile and aligned, why don’t we design, plan and execute initiatives that empower this kind of activity?

Contradicting tools prevent strategic alignment

To empower strategic alignment, we must both mobilize and map the informal conversations that keep people motivated, focused and committed to their companies.

And while we have tools that are designed to mobilize informal conversations (for example, Slack and Microsoft Teams) and other tools that are designed to map what motivates people (for example, Qualtrics employee engagement surveys), most companies don’t know how to combine the two.

That’s because the underlying principle of one type of tool contradicts the other.

Think about it. The underlying principle of side-to-side conversation and collaboration tools is that people must interact in order to share what’s important to them. That is, they must exchange questions and answers about what’s on their mind.

In contrast, the underlying principle of the feedback survey tools is that people must react to a predefined set of satisfaction and well-being questions in order to share what’s important to them.

The difference between interacting and reacting cannot be overstated. It’s the difference between curiosity and compliance. Between participating as an equal and being told what to do. Between exploring what’s important and being told what to think. Between sharing your unique experience and choosing from a set of predefined options.

Surveys are brilliant at mapping how people react to what leaders think is important. But they don’t actually map what employees think is important, and they certainly don’t mobilize anyone.

Similarly, conversation and collaboration tools are brilliant at mobilizing employees to join informal conversations, but they don’t cultivate or meaningfully structure the conversations, thereby making those conversations strategically irrelevant. And they certainly don’t map the conversations. That is, these tools don’t study, analyze or make sense of employee conversations—which makes them useless to the leaders and impossible to leverage.

In order to take advantage of knowledge that is coursing through our companies on a daily basis, we must both mobilize and map our side-to-side conversations among peers. Otherwise, all that priceless knowledge will flow out of our companies, and with it, our chance at success. 

We need a new kind of tool combining the best of both worlds

For decades, organizational network analysis researchers have tried to help managers deal with the fact that they simply can’t be everywhere at once, nor can they read people’s minds. Seminal research by David Krackhardt and Jeffrey R. Hanson in 1993 concluded that “managers are left to draw conclusions based on superficial observations, without the tools to test their perceptions.”

That might have been true in the 1990s. Back then, the organizational network analyses that researchers and consultants offered as a solution to managers’ problems were based on surveys and thus didn’t reflect how people were actually interacting. Those old network analyses reflected how employees thought they were interacting, which we know is very different from reality.

But in the 2020’s we can—and should—do better than that. Our tools should help us mobilize and map, and we should use them regularly and in such a way that they empower strategic alignment and enable meaningful decision-making throughout the organization.

Effective strategic alignment tools emulate human behavior

To design powerful new tools that encourage informal conversations to naturally arise and flow in our companies, we must understand why informal conversations are so effective in the first place. It’s actually quite simple. Informal conversations are powerful because they follow the three basic rules of human interaction.

The Three Basic Rules are:

  1. Someone says or does something,
  2. Someone else reacts to what’s been said or done – and thereby,
  3. Turns the subject matter of what’s been said or done into a shared responsibility

We all take part in this natural human interaction every time we have a conversation with someone, especially when we exchange questions and answers. For example, one executive asks another about the demands for more tailor-made products. The other executive responds with their opinion. And as a result, they both feel responsible to find a solution together.

However, the three basic rules and the shared responsibility and strategic alignment that arise from them are rarely an outcome of top-down communication or bottom-up survey feedback. In these instances, communication rarely goes beyond step 1, and almost never beyond step 2.

In top-down communication, employees typically don’t get an opportunity to genuinely react to what the leader has said or done.

Meanwhile, bottom-up communication typically results in surveys, which the leader never directly responds to. They go into an inbox of an HR executive, who crunches the numbers and analyzes the quantitative data and makes decisions about what to do next. If they’re lucky, employees receive some kind of an explanation or a road map for the future.

To be effective, a platform for strategic alignment must make it easy for internal change agents to initiate informal conversations, while following the three basic rules of human interaction:

  1. Someone (usually a leader) puts a strategic topic on the agenda, motivating people to join a conversation about how to focus the company/team’s attention and actions
  2. Someone else (usually employees and other stakeholders) not only reacts, but interacts by exchanging questions and answers about the different aspects of the strategic topic, and
  3. Everybody gets access to the collective knowledge about the topic by automatically receiving a summary of all exchanges as well as a network analysis of the interactions.

Thanks to modern technological developments, this three step exercise need only take a couple of days, and when done regularly, it automatically cultivates the informal conversations people have with each other, creates buy in (because people get to interact with their peers, form their own opinions and see themselves as integral part of identifying and solving problems they are experiencing), and thereby turn the strategy into a shared responsibility.

Qvest breaks down silos and fosters better decisions

Today’s leading tool for strategic alignment is Qvest. It enables companies to mobilize and map company-wide conversations and measure Key Behavioral Indicators (KBI’s), making it easy for leaders to focus their attention and actions where they’ll have the greatest impact.

This tool is revolutionizing how successful companies are doing business. In only five months, by working to strategically cultivate informal conversations and measure KBI’s, one large Danish company improved their:

  • Engagement score by 48%
  • Collaboration score by 43%
  • Innovation score by 18%

The collaboration score is derived from the number of interactions (questions and answer exchanges) between the different groups of participants. It looks like this:

When the company started using Qvest, its collaboration score was 3%. Two of the teams were isolated, meaning that they didn’t have any connections to the other teams. The rest of the teams were only connected to one or a few other teams. The connections were weak (thin links).

After using Qvest regularly for 5 months, the company's collaboration score was 46%. On average, each team were connected to 77% of the other teams. The least connected team was connected to 46% of the other teams. Most of the connections were very strong (thick links).

According to the leader of this company, the quality of the conversations increased significantly from their first to their fifth Qvest—going from not business-related small-talk to highly strategic questions and answers. Their alignment score—showing whether people agree on what’s most important to focus on—also improved significantly.

By mobilizing and mapping strategic conversations, Qvest empowers leaders to make the right decisions about the right problems, and at the same time it empowers everybody else to do the same and assume responsibility for the company’s success.

The company’s leader explained: “Employees' questions and answers in Qvest capture their knowledge and experience about our services and their preferred solutions and make it available as a basis for new and better decisions. At the same time, we have experienced that employees channel this curiosity into real-life interactions, which creates a dynamic atmosphere during our coffee breaks as well as in our meetings. I’m so uplifted by all the knowledge we gain. Knowledge, which already exist in our organization and we can tap into if we are curious and make a deliberate effort to bring it out.”

The next normal: Let's do it right this time

The coronavirus crisis has revealed some important truths about us as leaders and as employees. It has shown us that some of the ways we’ve been communicating and making decisions in our companies are flawed and are a liability for our future success.

We now have an opportunity to rebuild our organizations so that they can thrive in the next normal. All we have to do is remember that companies run on knowledge, that knowledge resides in people, and that side-to-side conversations are the way to create and act on knowledge.

Pia Lauritzen

Pia Lauritzen

Co-founder and Chief Methodologist at Qvest. Pia is the inventor of the Qvest method. She has a PhD in Philosophy and has spent the last 20 years researching and writing about the nature and impact of questions.

Better results. Faster.

Use Qvest to act on risks and opportunities.

Book a demo