One of the most common difficulties companies face in strategic planning is turning their vision into a reality. To transform your organization into the one you envision takes more than great strategy and implementation, you also need to make the strategy an integral part of the very fiber of your organization. When we speak of this idea, we usually use the phrase "strategic alignment."

Aligning everyone in your organization with your strategy is one of the most important things you can do beyond formulating and implementing great strategies. Alignment will make it much easier for your management team to push the organization in the direction you intend. Without good alignment with the strategy, every bit of forward motion will be a struggle.

As an example, consider a retail computer store. If you are running such a store, you probably want employees who appeal to specialty customers. Helpful, cheerful and courteous employees will encourage these customers to return, even if the prices are a little higher than other stores nearby. Rude, sullen employees who don't know how to help customers will drive customers away. If you have a good staff in a store, you won't have to work as hard to get customers to return. If your staff is really excellent, you may even get some word of mouth advertising. While this may cost a little more in terms of the compensation you offer employees, you will get a payoff in the form of a loyal specialty customer base.

Specialty stores need specialty salespeople -- this much is obvious -- but your strategies may introduce a twist into your thinking. Let's say there are two kinds of specialty computer stores: those that appeal to neophytes and those that appeal to technologically oriented users. If your strategy is to be a neophyte-oriented store, you want your staff to be good at hand-holding, explaining technology, and patiently answering simple questions. Deep technical knowledge may be less important than the ability to reassure customers who might otherwise be fearful about computers. At the more sophisticated store, you want a very different sort of employee. Employees who are very knowledgeable about the product will be much more valuable, and a willingness to figure out answers to difficult questions will keep the specialty "power user" coming back.

The wrong person in the wrong store will be a disaster in either case, despite the fact that both might be specialty computer stores. Imagine a new computer user encountering a sales person who is just right for the techie store. The techie salesperson will overwhelm the neophyte with information about AGP slots, Frontside bus clock speed, and BIOS configurability (most of which most computer users don't need to -- or want to -- know). The new user will likely go along with this, but may not make the purchase, simply because the salesperson has only convinced him or her that this is indeed a very complicated purchase. Even if he or she does buy that day, you may never see that customer again (if there is a choice) because the experience was more frightening than reassuring. This is a problem in three ways: it's bad for your store, it's bad for the customer, and it's bad for the career of a salesperson who would be really good -- in another store.

How do we get this alignment? There are five basic steps that you must take to assure your employees are aligned with your company's strategies.

First, employees must have the conceptual tools required for good strategic thinking about their work.

Second, employees must understand the strategy.

Third, strategic alignment needs to be built around the structure of the organization.

Fourth, strategy must be reflected in the structure of individual jobs -- especially those in critical areas.

Fifth, you must have buy-in to the strategy.