Harvard Case Study – Leader as Architect: Alignment

Harvard Case Study

Leader as Architect: Alignment

Summary prepared by: Steven McCraney

A leader’s job is in part to transform feedback into action. It is the job of the leader to define organizational strategy and shape organizational identity while managing four key components:

  • Formal organizational structure
  • Culture
  • People
  • Critical task

These components coupled with their collective interaction align to produce performance.

All organizations are different and while they do not operate in a void, they are harnessed by both RESOURCES and CONSTRAINTS. Resources are defined as raw materials, technology, cash, people information, reputation with suppliers, distributors, customers, pools of talent which a team can utilize to product input. Conversely, organizations are limited by Constraints, specifically market forces, institutional forces, and historical forces.

  • Market forces are consumer demands, supplier access, and competitor advantages.
  • Institutional forces are laws and regulations, business/industry norms, social or political expectations.
  • Historical forces are org history and prior leader decision making.

Resources and constraints boil down to two filters that frame the leader as architect…Strategy and Identity. Respectively, Strategy: WHAT we do and Identity: WHO we are! Strategy helps us prioritize activity while capturing opportunities and responding to threats. Identity consists of attributes that drive legitimacy of an organization. Once the leader gets a handle on what they do and who they are…the next step is to silo organizational components into four groups: critical task / formal organization / culture and people in a manner that aligns to produce the organizations focused output.

Well aligned organizations:

  • Attain strategic goals
  • Effectively utilize resources
  • Adapt to unforeseen challenges

Organizational Components include hardware which is divided into Critical Task and Formal Organizations, the structural systems that dictate how individuals conduct work. Critical task define the work an organization must do exceedingly well in light of its strategy and identity to be a top performer

Formal Organization consist of the roles, relationships, and procedures that divide labor and member action. This choice by the leader may be driven by the following: external forces – customer demands, competitive pressures and technology advances. Internal forces – the content of the work and how to do it well, or the Theory of Leadership – the leaders own values and vision.

Common structures include engineering, marketing, HR and finance. Systems compliment structure by providing the glue connecting structures and productivity. Common systems include internal control, performance management; information systems that help manage human capital, compensation and incentives.

The organizations software focuses on the People and Culture. People execute critical task. It is essential that they are competent and knowledgeable to successfully do the intended work well and simultaneously find the work intrinsically rewarding. This is delineated into characteristic and competencies. Characteristics: education, age, gender and ethnicity. Competencies: leadership, adaptability, and capacity to learn new skills. Culture might be the toughest component to measure and manage. It manifests itself in norms, values, philosophy, rules of the game and behavioral regularities displayed when people interact.

Misalignment may create opportunity gaps that can stand in the way of optimal organizational performance. It is the difference between organizations doing what it should be doing vs. what it is doing. Performance gaps on the other hand define what an organization is doing vs. what it intended to do. However, when leaders present change such as a new incentive plan they must account for alignment between critical task, formal organization, people and culture which can produce unintended challenges.

To diagnose and identify these gaps it is imperative to look deeper by asking a number of questions. Leaders often misalign between intended strategy (What the organization intends to do) and the explicit output (what the organization actually does). The questions to consider are first:

  • How well are we executing on our defined strategy?
  • Who / What is holding the organization back?

2nd, describe the critical task the leaders and team members must be able to articulate the concrete task necessary to implement the strategy and drive customer value. The question to ask is:

  • What activities must we be great at so that we can deliver value to our customers?
  • What are the interdependencies between the critical task?

3rd , check the Organizational Congruency. Once a leader defines the critical task they then have to align with other organizational components and determine how well they fit together and identify any misalignment. They questions to be ask is:

  • To what degree do the critical task integrate with the skills, structure and culture of the organization?

4th, develop solutions and take corrective action. In short, once misalignment is identified leaders must determine the degree of misalignment and measure the amount of corrective action to take. The relevant questions to ask are:

  • How much inconsistency exists?
  • Is the misalignment related to a specific business unit or is it widespread throughout the organization?
  • What is the specific corrective action necessary to address the misalignment?

5th, and lastly…One must observe the response and learn from the consequences. Actions taken to expose misalignment can have a cascading effect on other parts of the organization other than the intended remedy. Taking corrective action requires the thoughtful provocation of the following two questions:

  • Has the corrective action addressed the discrepancy between the intended strategy (What we do) and the actual output (what an organization actually produces).

To view the Harvard Business Study article this case study was drawn from, please click here.

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