Aligning interests: How to make things happen by getting everyone on the same page
Whether you want to start a new project, progress your career or find a way to deal with that guy who always throws a spanner in the works, knowing how to align people’s interests and get them all on the same boat is invaluable, particularly when it’s a rough ride.
Research shows teams are more creative and motivated when they are clear about what they’re doing and where they sit in the process. This becomes even more important when the work place comes under stress.
We’d all love to work in companies with perfect organisational structures and consistent work demands, but unfortunately, the reality is that most companies, even large ones, take on too much work for the number of people they have and never manage to get the organisational structure right despite repeated attempts. Their greatest problem is getting employees aligned.
You can make things happen and thrive by understanding the organisation’s objectives and helping to align other employees around these objectives. It doesn’t matter what your position is; it’s simply a matter of understanding what is driving value and developing an initiative to address this within reasonable creative boundaries.
When I served as CEO of Mirabela Nickel, I felt that there was a disjunction between what I considered to be the most important drivers of value and what many employees believed the priorities were. I realised that in order to get everyone rowing in the same direction, I had to bring them all on board my boat, rather than trying to corral their separate spheres onto the same track.
Surprisingly, I did this by asking 3 questions about their interests, not mine:
What are you doing at the moment?
Where do you want to go with it?
How can you get there?
We talked through their projects in these terms and discussed how their work resulted in the next step and how this led to another milestone and ultimately, how it contributed to the bigger company picture. This is how we managed to develop and build one of the world’s largest nickel mines in record time. And it meant a lot to employees when I took the time to understand what they were doing, their challenges and how they were contributing.
When people understood my ultimate goal and how they fit into the bigger picture, it was like a light bulb moment in which they also developed a sense of purpose and motivation. It was hugely powerful as a validation process for them and their work - they were able to take ownership of their part in the project and work more efficiently towards our common goal.
Many organisations lack this tailored approach: management decides to implement a new initiative, but if it proves to be awkward and clunky, there’s no room for flexibility and feedback from employees. What is the point of an idea if it doesn’t serve the purpose for which it was designed? A real idea is something that satisfies a specific demand and can be executed with the resources and people available.
If your managers aren’t explaining their higher purpose, then just ask someone. If no one is asking you about what you want to achieve, then tell someone and ask how you can achieve your goal within the context of the company’s higher purpose. Whether you think their answer is helpful or not isn’t important. It provides an opportunity for you to share your thoughts and those of others in a way that grows a sense of purpose. It might get other people thinking about things from a different perspective too.
You could create a session each week where people talk about what’s happening or just ask around the office what the mood is like. If things are looking up, then now is the time to take advantage of the positive mood. Ask your boss how you can help or suggest a new project that might reveal information on a new project initiative. You’re more likely to get approval when things are running smoothly. But remember, take baby steps and start with small reasonable initiatives that management can easily approve.
If things aren’t going so well, you need to take a different approach. Has the company just missed out on a major contract or has demand fallen through the floor? Are there concerns for people’s jobs or the welfare of the company? Companies under stress tend to think narrow-mindedly, so respond appropriately. Now is probably not the moment to propose a new case for business investment. However, a more positive work environment will contribute to better decision making processes and ideas generation, so small initiatives to cheer up the workplace could have a big impact.
Aligning people’s interests is also crucial if you’re working as part of a team. There will always be disagreements, but if you can drill down to the underlying common denominator for everyone on the team, then it’s easier to determine a compromise and work towards a solution.
A friend of mine was frustrated, because his project initiative kept getting dropped by management whenever their consulting business became busy. It turned out that his project was focused on internal processes and education for the company’s own consultants, rather than for client facing processes that might deliver a cheaper and better service.
His initiative became much more interesting when we re-designed it as front-end tool for detailed production analysis, one of the main services provided by the consulting company. The tool will make it possible for clients to enter their own economic data assumptions and gain a better understanding of the implications of their data assumptions, like cost structure and pricing, before the job is started. This client data can then form a project brief that is so specific and detailed, it becomes possible to reduce the cost of a production analysis by up to six times, by removing alterations and iterations that previously wasted work hours and delayed completion.
So, we reframed the context of his initiative to address the company’s main concerns of delivering a cheaper, better and faster service to clients under pressure, while at the same time satisfying my friend’s need to improve internal processes and help his consultant colleagues collect all the data before starting a job.
Once the initiative was applied in this new context and it became all about the client rather than the staff, management could see how it would boost business and even serve as a marketing tool to get clients thinking about their requirements before things became desperate.
With everybody’s interests aligned, the project is now receiving consistent support from management, clients and colleagues, even when the company is overwhelmed with work. In addition, the initiative has become an idea that contributes to the long term vision of the company and there are now plans to use it for marketing as well.
If you can identify what creates value in your workplace, understand how you can contribute to this and bring others along for the ride, then you will establish yourself as a driving force in the organisation and become the leader that everyone wants to follow.