What's the Difference Between Alignment and Agreement?
BY Ilan Mochari
And when is the latter more important?
It is practically a golden rule for leadership teams: Be in alignment on organizational priorities, or the organization will suffer.
But adhering to this principle isn’t easy. It requires a high degree of trust among top team members. Why? Because only in an atmosphere of trust can individuals openly criticize team goals and hash out conflicts without getting personal. Otherwise, they may fear being ostracized or dismissed for their "selfishness" or "skepticism."
Build has covered this topic at length, with help from the Table Group and consultant Margaret Heffernan. So our interest was piqued when, not long ago, we read a Huffington Post article that put a twist on the prevailing view of alignment as a golden rule. In the article, Ryan McKeever, head of marketing at the St. Paul-based consultancy Aveus, offers a model in which alignment is not always the ideal goal for the top team.
McKeever explains that, under certain circumstances, agreement is more important than alignment. "Alignment means everyone can support a decision as if it were their own, even if they might have done something different if they ruled the world. It means they can feel good about standing on the same side, acting as a unified force," he writes.
"Agreement, on the other hand, requires a higher degree of commitment from each person on the team. Agreement means there is unanimity of opinion. When there is agreement, every person truly believes the direction of the decision and resulting actions are both their personal choice, and the choice of the group."
McKeever’s model, which he developed with Aveus owner and partner Linda Ireland, illustrates when a top team should strive for agreement, rather than alignment:
"The major force affecting the threshold between alignment and agreement is the level of trust within the team," he writes. "While the topic of trust deserves its own conversation, more trust means more risk can be tolerated without requiring agreement from everyone. For example: Acquiring a product or company that will significantly impact focus, resources, customers and financial outcomes across the organization would be high on organization risk. If everyone on the team (and their teams) are impacted significantly as well, than there is also a high degree of personal risk. Strive for agreement."
McKeever and Ireland’s overall idea is that top teams need to figure out which decisions require agreement vs. alignment. In an interview with Build, McKeever elaborates on this and other aspects of his article.
Build: In your article, you give an acquisition -; something that brings huge potential risk to the table -; as a scenario in which a top team might require agreement rather than alignment. In your experience, what other events typically necessitate striving for agreement?
McKeever: There isn’t a steadfast line, since the line can move based on the team and the context. But there are areas where the impact of the change typically has a stronger magnitude and agreement should be sought after: hiring a top executive, mergers, entering a new market, regulatory or legal compliance, enterprise infrastructure changes, and operational expansions or contractions.
Build: How often do top teams have enough collective trust that they can be in potential alignment on nearly every topic that arises -; and seldom feel the levels of personal or organizational risk that warrant striving for agreement in lieu of alignment?
McKeever: Less often than we’d like. Think of any team that you are on. Are you aware of some issue that is of high personal risk or high risk to the organization where your team would need to seek agreement? Probably so. There are two likely situations when the arc in the alignment-agreement chart up is moved up and to the right, where most decisions can have alignment: You have either an established team that has developed trust over time or a new team that (magically) has similar individual values, which immediately creates trust. Neither situation is common. Issues that require agreement aren’t good or bad; they just are. The question is really, How do I manage the trust issue? Trust comes from three elements: motive, capability, and reliability. When you find you don’t trust someone, strive to understand why by digging more deeply in these areas.
Build: Play devil’s advocate for a minute and answer this hypothetical question: Does allowing agreement to play a role in decision-making preclude a team-first mentality? In other words, in situations where agreement rather than alignment is required, don’t team members have an excuse to become very "me-first" about any decision that they believe involves the slightest personal risk?
McKeever: It makes it possible, but it doesn’t give team members the right to use me-first thinking. It’s potent and dangerous. Use me-first thinking carefully. We just watched this happen in Washington, D.C., and we’re [seeing] the fallout from that. At Aveus, we call this the "nuclear option."