A New Approach to Organizational Alignment: An Interview with Plenty

Relevant, accessible, and easy to implement — that’s what I thought in April when I heard Jennifer Mulholland and Jeff Shuck from Plenty Consulting talk about their company’s model of organizational strategy. The tool they presented is being used to help organizations of all sizes get aligned — and their approach might carry some insights you can use in yours. Below are excerpts from our interview in which you can learn more about the model and how you can put it to use in your organization.

Dottie: Tell me about Plenty and the philosophy behind it.

Jen and Jeff: Our world view is one in which we believe there’s plenty for everyone, abundance is out there waiting to be unlocked. When we look at nature, alignment is everywhere as well. It’s the natural state of nature — the formation of a flock of geese, the way a river runs down a stream. It’s the fluid way that nature grows and evolves into its highest potential.

In organizations, alignment is more than just agreement. Alignment is about inclusion, conversation, collaboration, and getting all levels of the organization on the same page regarding goals and objectives.

Dottie: Under your model, how can you tell if an organization is (or isn’t) aligned?

Jen and Jeff: People often have trouble articulating what alignment looks like. They use phrases like we’re in the flow, we’re working together well, things seem effortless. But when alignment’s missing, you can really hear it very clearly:

  • “It takes a long time to come to a decision, and then we don’t really decide.”
  • “Meetings seem to be heavy and take twice as long as they should.”
  • “We can’t seem to get initiatives off the ground.”

Without alignment, there’s a drastic decrease in self-initiative, self-empowerment, and team responsibility for getting things done. And this only adds to an organization’s inefficiency.

Dottie: There are many strategy models already out there, so what makes your approach unique?  How does it increase organizational alignment?

Jen and Jeff: Strategy is about focus, choosing what you do and choosing what you don’t do. We can’t do everything well, so we have to pick a few things we can excel at and other things that will go by the wayside. And that idea of creating focus is really difficult for organizations without alignment.

Strategy is also about people. The world is dramatically different than it used to be. Today, we are all networked, we all have a voice, and we all can broadcast our opinions to hundreds — and sometimes even thousands — of people. The idea of hierarchical top-down strategy really doesn’t have a place anymore. People want to collaborate. The world around us is cooperative. So we have to involve people themselves in strategic planning.

Under the old paradigm, what you cared about personally stayed at home. You didn’t bring it to work. We can’t put ourselves in these boxes anymore. When what we care about personally and professionally becomes more congruent, we create alignment. We create a fired-up organization where a person’s role and their part matters.

That literally is the fuel. Think about it. When you meet someone who is passionate about what they do, it absolutely transforms the conversation.

To identify and tap into that passion, we start with individual motivation. We ask the team members to independently write down their organization’s mission statement and then we compare these notes with each other and the actual statement. The point here is not that we want everyone to memorize the mission word for word, it’s that people think differently about what the organization’s top priority is.

We then invite people to think about their highest vision for a better world through their organization. How big can they think? It’s about the possibilities, and it’s amazing the incredible comradery and conversation that results.

Dottie: I would imagine that these conversations could become pretty wide-ranging, so how do you bring everyone back to a common focus?

Jen and Jeff: Once we get people to define passion — what they care about — then all of the traditional, hard-core strategy things go much quicker, like:

  • Positioning: How do you set your organization apart? What are the things you really need to win, and what are you willing to sacrifice to the competition?
  • Presence: How do people and the market experience you? What do they think of when they see your brand, your mission, your initiatives and impact?
  • People: Looking internally, do you have the right people on the bus? Are they passionate about what you’re trying to do, and bought into the possibilities you’re trying to create?
  • Process: These are the metrics, the meetings, the infrastructure. Most organizations and meetings jump here first — and it’s putting the cart before the horse.

Dottie: How do you make sure this strategic process leads to systemic change, rather than just being put on a shelf?

Jen and Jeff: It’s an intentional process, starting with passion first and ending with process aka the metrics, tools, operations, bottom line, and revenue growth, which people tend to talk about first. But if you don’t quickly get to the “why are you here” conversation, this process will make absolutely no difference, because lurking in the background are the really important pieces.

Dottie: How do you get the conversation started about passion?

Jen and Jeff: One of our favorite questions is what brings you joy? Think about a childhood memory. Where were you at your happiest, and what were you doing? Then we listen beyond the words to discover what is meaningful and what matters. As the team sees this being recorded, they’re able to see how the passions in their lives relate to why they’re a part of this organization.

The other thing we do to warm a group up is to put them into small groups. It’s incredible what happens to the room. Once we came into a really cold room. There were 20 people, and they had never met each other. The first thing we said is break into groups of three. The room went from awkward, silent, cold and stiff with everybody checking their phones to loud, noisy and laughing.

Dottie: What happens after the retreat? How do organizations take this passion and make it a part of everything that they do moving forward?

Jen and Jeff: To have any staying power, the retreat has to be meaningful by design, with the end goal being that attendees leave thinking: Wow, we had a rigorous conversation about joy and its role in business and positioning. And the organization needs people who are bought-in enough that they keep the conversation alive. The mission and strategy document itself, although important, won’t do anything without a leader who reminds people of what they talked about.

At Plenty, we have a lot of discussion around courage, authenticity, inclusion, and love as part of our core values. The more we talk about it in meetings and on a daily, weekly basis, the more it becomes infused in our culture. And we’re using those values to pick who we work with. What types of clients do we want to attract? How do we assess if a partner is in congruency with our vision and mission?

Dottie: Talk about creating alignment with volunteers rather than staff, particularly members of volunteer boards.

Jen and Jeff: Any leader who thinks they can mobilize staff easier because they pay them is missing the point of leadership. But there are different dynamics when you’re working with volunteers, especially volunteer board members. At this level, you need to ask: What passions and sense of purpose attracted board members to their positions in the first place? What are their unique skill sets? How do those skill sets really help with the organization’s mission?

One of the biggest problems with managing volunteer boards is apathy. You can’t get people to return calls, you can’t get them to read the packet and you can’t get them to know enough about the organization to effectively govern.

It’s not just because they’re busy. We’re all busy. What do we prioritize? We prioritize the things we care about. So it’s tremendously important at the end of the day to have leaders who care about being here and who feel like they’re spending their precious time on things they care about.

Learn more about Plenty’s upcoming leadership and strategy retreats here.

Dottie Schindlinger

Dottie is BoardEffect’s Governance Technology Evangelist and promotes the concept of Governance for Good as a leading expert in the field. She researches governance trends and writes for a variety of publications, including the definitive chapter on “E-governance Is Good Governance” for Internet Management for Nonprofits: Strategies, Tools & Trade Secrets, Ted Hart, Steve R. McLaughlin, James M. Greenfield, Philip H. Geier, Jr., Eds., April 2010: Wiley & Sons, New York, NY. A frequent presenter on the topic of good governance, Dottie speaks to dozens of audiences – both in the US and abroad – and presents hundreds of webinars each year.