Aligning Action and Values
Executives spend too much time drafting, wordsmithing, and redrafting
vision statements, mission statements, values statements, purpose
statements, aspiration statements, and so on. They spend nowhere
near enough time trying to align their organizations with the
values and visions already in place.
Studying and working closely with some of the worlds most
visionary organizations has made it clear that they concentrate
primarily on the process of alignment, not on crafting the perfect
statement. Not that it is a waste of time to think
through fundamental questions like, What are our core values?
What is our fundamental reason for existence? What do we aspire
to achieve and become? Indeed, these are very important
questionsquestions that get at the vision of
Yet vision is one of the least understood-and most overused-terms
in the language. Vision is simply a combination of three basic
elements: (1) an organizations fundamental reason for existence
beyond just making money (often called its mission or purpose),
(2) its timeless unchanging core values, and (3) huge and audaciousbut
ultimately achievableaspirations for its own future (I like
to call these BHAGs, or Big Hairy Audacious Goals). Of these,
the most important to great, enduring organizations are its core
Okay, all fine and good to understand the basic concept of vision.
But there is a big difference between being an organization with
a vision statement and becoming a truly visionary organization.
The difference lies in creating alignment-alignment to preserve
an organizations core values, to reinforce its purpose,
and to stimulate continued progress towards its aspirations. When
you have superb alignment, a visitor could drop into your organization
from another planet and infer the vision without having to read
it on paper.
In fact, the founders of great, enduring organizations like Hewlett-Packard,
3M, and Johnson & Johnson often did not have a vision statement
when they started out. They usually began with a set of strong
personal core values and a relentless drive for progress and hadmost
importanta remarkable ability to translate these into concrete
mechanisms. 3M, for instance, has always had a sense of its core
valuessponsoring innovation, protecting the creative individual,
solving problems in a way that makes peoples lives better.
These defined the organization and gave it a soul. But what really
set 3M apart was the ability of its leadership over the years
to create mechanisms that bring these principles to life and translate
them into action. For example, 3M allows scientists to spend 15
percent of their time working on whatever interests them, requires
divisions to generate 30 percent of their revenues from new products
introduced in the past four years, has an active internal venture
capital fund to support promising new ventures, preserves a dual
career track to encourage innovators to remain innovators rather
than become managers, grants prestigious awards for innovations
and entrepreneurial success, and so on. I dont even know
if 3M has a formal values statement (if it does, we
never came across it in all of our research into 3M), but because
of its alignments, I knowwith absolute clarity3Ms
core values, as does anyone familiar with the organization and
how it operates.
Creating alignment is a two-part process. The first is identifying
and correcting misalignments. The second is creating new alignments,
or what I call mechanisms with teeth. Im going
to discuss the process as it applies primarily to core values,
but the same basic process applies to creating alignment with
purpose and BHAGs.
Identifying and correcting misalignments
Identifying misalignments means looking around the organization,
talking to people, getting input, and asking, If these are
our core values and this is fundamentally why we exist, what are
the obstacles that get in our way? For instance, many organizations
say they respect and trust their people to do the right thing,
but they undermine that statement by doing X, Y, and Z. The misalignments
exist not because the statements are false: these companies believe
what they say. The misalignments occur because years of ad hoc
policies and practices have become institutionalized and have
obscured the firms underlying values. For example, say an
organization launches a new service without coordinating its internal
processes, creating problems for customers. To make sure it doesnt
happen again, managers institute a sign-off process for each new
service thats introduced. The policy remains embedded in
operations long after people have forgotten why it was created.
At some point, people in the organization begin to grumble about
the organizations elaborate sign-off process, recognizing
its inconsistency with the notion of respect and trust for the
individual. The first task for leaders, then, is to create an
environment and a process that enable people to safely identify
and eliminate these misalignments.
I recommend working collaboratively with people throughout the
organization. Ask each individual to identify something in his
or her daily work that is inconsistent with the organizations
core values. Randomly sort the individuals into groups of three
to six and ask each group to come up with the three most significant
misalignments pertaining to each core value. Lets say you
had 24 people involvedfour groups of six. Each of the four
groups comes up with three misalignments for each core value.
Lo and beholdwhat do you find? Typically, each group has
identified the same misalignments. This process allows your organization
to quickly identifywithout pointing fingersthe four
or five most significant misalignments. Once youve agreed
the emperor has no clothes, you can begin to dress him.
Creating new alignments
Its one thing to eliminate misalignments that exist but
shouldnt. Its another to create something that doesnt
yet exist but ought to. Just being consistent is not enough. True
alignment means being creatively compulsive. It means going over
the top. Consider, for example, Granite Rock Company, a small
construction-materials outfit that won the Baldrige award in 1992.
The company espouses continuous improvement in customer satisfaction.
They tell their customers, If theres anything about
an order you dont like, simply dont pay us for it.
Deduct that amount from the invoice and send us a check for the
balance. They call it shortpay; I call it a thorn in the
laurel or a mechanism with teeth. While many successful organizations
rest on their laurels, Granite Rock does the opposite. They devised
a system that makes it difficult if not impossible to become complacent
about continuously improving customer satisfaction. Would Granite
Rock be inconsistent without shortpay? No, but telling customers,
If theres anything you dont like, dont
pay for it, goes way beyond what other organizations normally
Likewise, 3M could simply say, We dont get in the
way of innovators. Fine. But thats very different
from creating mechanismslike requiring that 30 percent of
revenues be generated by new productsto actually stimulate
innovation. By instituting these reinforcement mechanisms, Granite
Rock and 3M bring their values to life.
To take another example, its easy to say, We ought
to do more training of new people when they come in the door so
theyll learn our value system. But thats not
creating alignment. Alignment would be to enact a process in which
Within their first 48 hours on the job all new employees
will go through an eight-hour orientation process to learn what
this organization is about. Theyll study its history and
philosophy. Theyll meet with a senior executive. Thats
concrete and specifictwo requirements of an effective alignment
mechanism. It also has teeth.
Suppose one of your core values is encouraging employee participation
and creativity, and therefore you want to encourage input and
ideas from people throughout your organization. So you create
a suggestion box. Is that alignment? Yes, it is an alignment mechanism,
but to make it an effective mechanism, you must take the
concept much further. Instead of sticking a suggestion box off
by itself in some hallway, consider putting suggestion boxes in
every hallway, corridor, conference room, and lunch roomanywhere
people might be when they get an idea. And dont stop there.
Add the commitment that every submission, anonymous or signed,
will be responded to publicly within 48 hours in the form of a
statement specifying what will be done and who is responsible
for getting it done. And beyond that, perhaps give recognition,
prizes, or bonuses for the best ideas and suggestions or even
give thanks for the input prizes randomly to a subset
of all suggestions, no matter how valuable. Now, thats alignment.
Identifying core values
In describing the alignment process, I have assumed that your
organizations core values are already clearly defineda
big assumption. Let me make a few points about identifying core
values, for without this stake firmly in the ground, there can
be no effective alignment.
First, you cannot set organizational values, you can
only discover them. Nor can you install new core values
into people. Core values are not something people buy in
to. People must be predisposed to holding them. Executives often
ask me, How do we get people to share our core values?
You dont. Instead, the task is to find people who
are already predisposed to sharing your core values. You must
attract and then retain these people and let those who arent
predisposed to sharing your core values go elsewhere.
Ive never encountered an organization, even a global organization
composed of people from widely diverse cultures, that could not
identify a set of shared values. The key is to start with the
individual and proceed to the organization. One way to identify
your organizations authentic core values is to form what
I call the Mars group. Imagine youve been asked to recreate
the very best attributes of your organization on another planet,
but you only have seats on the rocketship for five to seven people.
Who would you send? They are the people who probably have a gut-level
understanding of your core values, have the highest level of credibility
with their peers, and demonstrate the highest levels of competence.
Ill often ask a group of 50 or 60 people to nominate a Mars
group of five to seven individuals. Invariably, they end up selecting
a powerful, credible group that does a super job of articulating
the core values precisely because they are exemplars of those
values. One caveat: Top management has to be confident enough
to trust the Mars group to do its work. In my experience, those
executives willing to take this risk find that the group identifies
organic values that the executive was tempted to impose from above.
This experience in itself strengthens the managers belief
in the core nature of the values.
The Mars group should wrestle with certain basic questions: What
core values do you bring to your workvalues you hold to
be so fundamental that you would hold them regardless of whether
or not they are rewarded? How would you describe to your loved
ones the core values you stand for in your work and that you hope
they stand for in their working lives? If you awoke tomorrow morning
with enough money to retire for the rest of your life, would you
continue to hold on to these core values? And perhaps most important:
can you envision these values being as valid 100 years from now
as they are today? Would you want the organization to continue
to hold these values, even if at some point one or more of them
became a competitive disadvantage? If you were to start a new
organization tomorrow in a different line of work, what core values
would you build into the new organization regardless of its activities?
The last three questions are key because they help groups make
a crucial distinction: core values are timeless and do not change,
while practices and strategies should be changing all the time.
Distinguishing between values, practices,
Every institutionwhether for-profit or nothas to wrestle
with a vexing question: What should change and what should never
change? Its a matter of distinguishing timeless core values
from operating practices and cultural norms. Timeless core values
should never change; operating practices and cultural norms should
never stop changing. A timeless core value in an academic institution,
for instance, is freedom of intellectual inquiry. A practice adopted
to support that core value is academic tenure. But theres
a lot of evidence to suggest that the practice of tenure probably
needs to be changed or discarded because it no longer serves the
purposes for which it was created.
But if I suggest that academic institutions should seriously think
about changing the tenure system, the average academic is likely
to say, Never! Youre violating our core values.
But that protest arises from a failure to distinguish between
values and practices. The core value is freedom of inquiry; tenure
is a practice. Frequently institutions cling doggedly to practices
that are in truth nothing more than familiar habits. As a result,
they fail to change things that ought to change. And by defending
outmoded practices under the banner of core values, they might
actually be betraying their true core values.
Your core values and purpose, if properly conceived, remain fixed.
Everything elseyour practices, strategies, structures, systems,
policies, and proceduresshould be open for change. The confusion
between timeless and temporal concepts shows up in every walk
of life. On a national level, for instance, the president of the
United States says, We cant touch Medicaid in its
current form because that would be inconsistent with the core
values of the nation. But if you pull out the Declaration
of Independence and the Gettysburg Addressthe two great
statements of what we stand for and why we existyou wont
see anything about Medicaid in either of them. That kind of obfuscationintentional
or not and from either side of the aisleinhibits debate,
let alone change.
How to spend your next off-site retreat
More often than not, off-site retreats for the executive team
or for large numbers of managers and staff are a wasted opportunity.
Yes, you need time away from the office for many reasons. But
most organizations spend it the wrong way.
To stop everything while you spend days drafting and revising
a values statement is not the most effective use of
timeespecially if people come back the next year and do
the whole process again. Instead, get together and ask, How
are our alignments working? What progress are we making on eliminating
our misalignments? Do we need to adjust what we decided to do
last year? It becomes an ongoing process. Your values are
a fixed stake in the ground. You get it right once, and the rest
of the work consists of tinkering with the organization.
Typically, executives devote a tiny percentage of their time and
effort to gaining understanding, a tiny percentage to creating
alignment, and the vast majority to documenting and writing a
statement. In fact, the distribution of time and effort should
be nearly the opposite (see figure below). You should spend a
significant percentage of time actually trying to gain understanding,
a tiny percentage documenting that understanding, and the vast
majority of your time creating alignment. In short, worry about
what you do as an organization, not what you say.
Copyright © 2000 Jim Collins, All rights reserved.