Photo by Mel on Unsplash
Photo by Mel on Unsplash
1 December 2020

Alignment: Artifacts & Rituals

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Original post can be found here:

Let me be transparent in a way that might make all of us uncomfortable.

Over the course of the year that I worked at my last unit, I felt quite unaligned to their strategy and culture. I struggled to pin down who, what, and why we were, consistently coming up short. I was (very generously) handed a job that I struggled with for months, gaining no traction in any of my efforts. I failed to connect personally with anybody on my team in any kind of deep way. I struggled with the persistent sense of distance between my peers and I, between my leaders and I, between my actions and the interests, objectives, and mission of the organization we belonged to–never mind my identity, my skills, and my interests. I was wholly unaligned, despite my best efforts, and the sincere efforts of a few of my leaders.

Obviously, I had my own internal barriers to overcome. Our daughter, Rebecca, died on the morning of May 6th–an event obviously traumatic but also one that served as mere punctuation to delineate the years-long crescendo of trauma before and the pianissimo start of the dramatic next movement of trauma that continues to unfold today. Rebecca died about 5 months into my tenure in that job, perhaps a month into a pandemic lock-down that created its own unique new barriers to communication and alignment. After four months of struggling to find my footing in a mission and culture that eluded me in my emotionally disjointed state, I retreated to my home office for a month, relieved. Then Rebecca died, and I retreated further.

But that’s not entirely the whole story, of course. I didn’t only retreat. From the perspective of the organization which I had failed to belong to, perhaps I simply retreated; but the truth is that I also advanced–only it was in another direction. My attention went elsewhere. I launched Agitare–the community of practice for facilitators of design and discovery frameworks within the Department of Defense. I had a theory that Agitare was something that rogue innovators, leaders, innovation and culture practitioners across the enterprise seriously needed. That theory was grounded in my own experience. It was certainly something that I needed. As a trained and inexperienced facilitator, I had lived with a lingering sense of misalignment ever since I left the safe haven of an innovation cell. In my un-tethered state, I desperately needed something I could be aligned to–not just an organization or a mission, but a community. So I built one. With friends. Pouring my time and energy into Agitare very much got me through the last 8 months, and continues to get me through today.

Stepping back even further, my sense of misalignment didn’t just originate with a unit that couldn’t meet me where I was in my darkest hour–a tall order for any leader or institution. I have felt intentionally unrepresented, unreflected, and unconsidered ever since that first day of Air Force basic training. They don’t try and hide the intent there–they hope to shape individuals to fit a predefined culture, not the other way around. They made it clear I was intended to be a cog in a machine meant to kill, and my feelings or identity weren’t particularly important factors so long as they didn’t get in the way. I knew the score well before I sat in that assembly line of barbers’ chairs and let a strange man buzz the Jim Morrison curls from my head in that strange ritual of efficient, systematized de-personalization. My misalignment cut even deeper as the anti-social father of a terminally ill and severely disabled child. There are clearly a number of factors at play here. I have also always disliked team chants and high-fives. I have always considered them to be forced rituals to pressure the disinclined to be puppeted into behaviors that mimic alignment.

I was lucky to have learned the importance of having a community from the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum and GovCity. Before I was ever a part of these amazing collectives, all I ever had were friends, and our alignment–our mutual identity–was often grounded in a shared sense of misalignment with the military, the unit, or the office we belonged to. Most of those old friends have left the military. My earliest memory of that sense of community comes from my first assignment, hiding from obligations with friends in the cafeteria, or on long walks, or in stairwells. We stole moments away from our seemingly pointless missions like swimmers trapped under ice, sipping at pockets of air. I remember those times fondly, but am keenly aware of the failures they reflect, both of us and our leaders.

My lack of alignment at my most recent assignment was particularly palpable in the absence of those deeper personal relationships within the unit or on my particular team. Relationships likely would have developed over time, but the pandemic and my own personal difficulties made sure to it that we remained at a distance. Thinking back on previous assignments, I believe this same sense of misalignment might have been the case for most of the teams and units I’ve belonged to over the years, if it weren’t for the ad-hoc scaffolding of relationships that sprung up, like a copse of trees holding up a house whose framing was all but absent–framing that had either never been built or had rotted away with time. Workplace friendships have always buoyed me up. When I didn’t have them, I struggled to keep my head above the waves.

How many of you feel misaligned? How many of your people do? Are you making sure? What are we doing to ensure that others don’t suffer the dissonance I’m describing?

I share my experience not because I think it is extraordinary, but because I have a strong suspicion that it is highly ordinary, especially for those who don’t fit the mold or in the midst of some kind of personal struggle. My theory is that a majority of our force doesn’t even know what it means to “bring your whole self to work”.

The truth is, our organizations don’t have to be so severely misaligned with the individuals who occupy them. We can build the underlying structure to be sufficient. We can maintain and adapt it to meet the needs of our people, like a scaffolding rather than a framework, as Ann Pendleton-Julian describes in her chapter of the book Cynefin- Weaving Sense-Making Into the Fabric of our World.

I think a lot of leaders might be under the harmful impression that true alignment is the result of talent management–like if we could just hand-pick our teams, we could fill them with people who don’t need to be considered, listened to, or reflected in their work. Or perhaps we think we could select individuals whose identity is already aligned with the work we do–a laughably absurd proposition. I think it’s important to recognize that even if we can’t pick the members of our team, there are steps we can take to create alignment, and those steps will be necessary and important regardless of who is on the team. Being a human being in the world is being in a state of perpetual motion, of constant change. The only successful strategy is organic, evolving, and adapting.

I have been on teams before that put time and energy into creating and sustaining alignment. Agitare is one of them. Alignment is one of our highest priorities, being a cornerstone of our value proposition, and thus we are always exploring how to do it better. It is one of my primary missions now to share and demonstrate how to achieve and maintain alignment for organizations. If we do things right, we don’t need shadow-networks. We don’t need separate channels of support. If we do things right, people can feel reflected in their work. They can feel safe expressing when they’ve fallen out of alignment. They can bring their whole selves to work. They can flourish, and the energy they bring to the mission as a result will surpass our highest expectations.

In order to achieve alignment, the first thing we need is to do is use the right social technology. The methods we usually employ don’t work well. Briefings, for example, are terrible methods of conveying information that we intend to carry forward into the future. Creating organizational identity in exclusive meetings and announcing it to the workforce doesn’t serve us well. We need to use social technology that enables the members of the organization to co-create the alignment we need.

The right social technology consists of an adaptive combination of rituals and artifacts.

Artifacts serve to create shared, collectively owned, transparent sources of truth about the current, past, and potential future states. Dave Gray, in his wonderful book Liminal Thinking, talks about the power of co-creating shared artifacts rather than trying to change the information inside one another’s heads.

Rituals serve to align individuals to those artifacts as their context and experience chances, to evolve them as they themselves evolve, to update and broadcast the information those artifacts represent, ensuring they stay true to our current organizational state and the internal states of everyone involved. Rituals are methods of regularly externalizing and processing our experience, like the exchange of air between closed systems as the pressure changes differently inside each of them. Rituals are actions of communication, in which we express ourselves in narrative formats and collectively interpret those narratives.

Artifacts help us carry the information generated during rituals forwards in time, so that we always have a frame of reference to indicate where we are in space, time, attitude, and development, so that the current situation has some semblance of coherence and context.

I believe there are three primary types of alignment we have to purposefully pursue for our teams: Strategic, cultural, and individual.

Strategic alignment ensures that the actions taken by every member advance the strategic interests of the organization. My favorite way of pursuing strategic alignment is using the OKR framework, which I learned about from John Doerr’s book Measure What Matters. I have encountered a few detractors to OKRs, many of whom had bad experiences with the method, but I have yet to encounter an approach which achieves the same balance of transparency and inclusiveness, with built-in artifacts and rituals to maintain coherence. OKRs are ideally co-created with the team, with objectives being aligned to the overall mission of the organization and key results being the measurable markers of achievement which give every team or member clear channels to put their time and energy into, and the context they need to adapt to emerging conditions. Regardless of what framework you use, the artifacts of strategic alignment provide a perpetually refreshing source of truth about the goals and interests of the organization, providing a clear logic to how the actions of every team member can be coherent with them. Rituals that reinforce strategic alignment refresh these artifacts with the latest contextual information. Examples include the bi-weekly OKR sync, the daily stand-up, or the daily 90-minute O&I video call described by Chris Fussell in One Mission.

Cultural alignment is much more difficult, and involves the purposeful co-creation of an organizational perspective and identity that is coherent with the identities and perspectives of its members. With the degree of turnover that we face in the military, the frequency of realignment required is significant. I have been on teams that assisted with this kind of work, and facilitated workshops are well-suited to accomplish it, focusing on the co-creation of collectively-owned artifacts like mission, purpose, and values. We can do regular maintenance of cultural alignment using methods like regular retrospectives, creating conditions of psychological safety, and normalizing rituals of transparency and vulnerability. Culture, being significantly more complex than strategy, is resistant to systemic solutions, and thus the ideal approach creates conditions for emergence through regular rituals that are responsive to the needs of participants, allowing what needs to happen to reveal itself in the process.

Individual alignment is the most difficult type to maintain. Every time I try and describe these different modes of alignment, I am tempted to leave it off the list, because there’s a lot about it that I’m still unsure of. What I can tell you is that when I read Kim Scott’s book Radical Candor, I knew for certain she was describing a human dynamic I had only ever experienced as the result of individual relationships. Similar types of leadership insights can be found in Brene Brown’s wonderful book Dare to Lead. As human beings, we are far more complex than just a list of attributes or a single identity. Our experience of the world can change drastically from moment to moment based on our internal state. This means it isn’t enough to just align culturally. I also have to be able to integrate the context of my current experience and internal state with the strategy and culture of the organization I belong to. Periods of turmoil, stress, or trauma shouldn’t be capable of decoupling me completely from the team and organization I belong to. The types of rituals that contribute to individual alignment include conversations in which we incorporate the key ingredients of Radical Candor: caring personally and challenging directly. Open, honest conversation, both in groups and one-on-one, can be a powerful ritual to regain coherence when life is bending us into new shapes.

These are the three types of alignment that I believe are most important: strategic, cultural, and individual.

I think that leaders often fail to recognize just how out of alignment their charges are with the unit or organization, and the severe impacts that can have on mission effectiveness, mental-health, retention, and so much more. I think that often times, mid-level management or flight leadership and higher are invited to have a seat at the table in a way that their charges are not, to rituals that might feel like chores but provide at least some semblance of inclusion, and gives them a sense of personal coherence to strategy and culture. I think that, especially now, in these socially distant and difficult times, they should be asking themselves how they can provide opportunities for alignment to that majority of the workforce who isn’t invited into those conversations by default.

What rituals do you use? What artifacts?

Are you including everyone that you ought?

If they felt misaligned, would you have any way of knowing?

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