Fully Alligned

Over the last few weeks we have been looking at the various organisational alignment patterns - top down, bottom up, etc. In each of those, the way to move forward once you have hit the limits of that particular pattern was always to extend alignment vertically and horizontally to other parts of the organisation. I made mention of a wondrous state that could be achieved where the whole organisation shares the same goals and is working together towards a common goal. Welcome to the Fully Aligned pattern.

This is the end goal for any enterprise agile adoption. This is the pattern that will really let you grow agile within the organisation and firmly embed it into the culture. This isn't just a desirable end state though. In my experience this is a necessary end state if agile is to thrive and become part of the organisational culture. Without full alignment, agile tends to wither away to a sort of agile-ish (or fragile) set of practices that are followed without really understanding why and more importantly without really delivering real business benefit. If agile is to deliver real benefits at the enterprise level, you need to achieve alignment.

Before you run screaming at the thought of getting all however-many tens of thousands of people in your organisation aligned (which sounds like an impossibly daunting task) you will be relieved to know that you don't have to get alignment across the whole organisation to be successful. The key here is that big organisations aren't really one organisation. If you look closely at them, they are a collection of multiple, smaller businesses under a common banner. Each of those separate business will have its own leadership, its own culture, its own challenges.

The trick here is that these sub units may, or may not correspond to the organisation's official organisational structure. What you need to find are the value streams. This is a concept from Lean and as a basic definition, a value stream represents all the work that needs to be done to get business value delivered from an idea - from concept to cash. In a product development shop, that might be a request for a new feature and all the work that needs to be done to get that idea into a release of the product. A typical large enterprise will contain many value streams. They may produce multiple products for multiple markets. They will have purely internal value streams representing work done on their own internal systems and processes. Anywhere where work is being done to deliver business value, you have a value stream.

These value streams may align to the org structure. In some large organisations, they are broken up into vertical markets where that organisational structure is responsible for everything to do with delivering into that market segment. More often though, value streams cut across the organisational boundaries. To deliver a product release, you may require resources from a frontline business unit that deals with customers plus resources from an IT delivery business unit and a production support business unit and so on. Organisational structures are typically organised vertically around job specialties or technical competencies while value streams tend to cut horizontally across multiple business units.

What you are aiming for is alignment across a value stream, or set of related value streams. This is the smallest subset of a large organisation where you can make a real, sustainable change. An optimisation of a value stream will make a measurable difference to the organisation's bottom line. Optimising only part of a value stream won't, or may even have a negative impact as this results in sub-optimisation - the part you optimise will run better but often at the expense of other parts of the stream which then eat up all the benefits (and often more).

So, first find your value stream. Now you need to see how its aligned. Is it all contained within one element of the org structure (in which case your life just got a lot easier), or does it cut right across (in which case your life just got harder)? As soon as you start to cut across organisational elements, you start to run into organisational politics. Take a look at the existing alignment patterns. Is the value stream alignment top down or bottom up? Is it IT or business lead? That will determine your initial engagement and how far that engagement can go. What you need to do now is start to improve the alignment until you get the whole stream aligned.

By working along value streams, you get alignment more easily than working within regular organisational structures. The reason is that most business units do multiple things - the IT business unit will have teams servicing dozens of different parts of the business, all with different goals. Aligning that will be a huge mess. A value stream though is already aligned around getting stuff done. That gives you an existing common focus to work with. Everything can be pitched around improving progress towards their goal. The difficulty of course is that most organisations don't recognise what their value streams are, so they will need to be educated. You will also run into a lot of empire protecting - if a team is now seen as part of a value stream, and is managed as part of a value stream, it may loosen a manager's hold over that part of their corporate empire, so be prepared to deal with that resistance.

Once you have aligned one value stream, build out to the adjoining ones. Build off the initial success and align the whole organisation stream by stream. You will find that different value streams have different alignments for example, your first stream may have been aligned bottom up but your success with that one gets noticed by senior leaders in other streams which results in a top down pattern in the next one.

You won't be able to do this on your own. Big enterprises are a lot of work. You will need a team to help you. In each value stream you will need to build a team of champions to take some of the load and make sure things keep running when you are elsewhere.