Alignment requires clarity

03 Apr
April 3, 2014

In the second of my series on alignment, I’ll be looking at the three key components necessary to achieve alignment – starting with clarity.


Clarity is the bedrock of alignment.  Without clarity it’s impossible to be aligned.  In my earlier post I talked about the importance of seeing eye-to-eye with your business. As learning and development professionals, this means two key things:

  1. knowing and understanding the plans and priorities of the business, and
  2. ensuring the business knows and understands how the L&D function is supporting these plans and priorities.

As L&D professionals you absolutely, without question, must thoroughly understand the plans and priorities of your business.  This means far more than just taking a cursory glance through any strategy document that happens to be lying around; rather it’s a deep and questioning approach to what your business is focusing on, the direction in which it’s heading and the challenges it’s facing.

As L&D professionals you must totally understand the issues your business is facing because if you don’t you can’t begin to address them.  You need to understand thoroughly the strategy of your business and understand how that applies to and impacts on you.  Clarity of the business strategy is essential, because without that you’ll never achieve alignment.  This was highlighted in a Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) online poll conducted in November 2007, where 46% of respondents said that in their organisation the overall strategy was unclear and therefore difficult to align against.

Once you have a thorough understanding of the business strategy you’ll naturally need to develop a response in support of it.  In earlier posts I looked at how to develop a great strategy and within your strategy you’ll naturally need to consider how to develop and deliver appropriate interventions that support it.

Unfortunately, this is where things can become unstuck.  L&D professionals need to develop interventions and solutions that the business believes will have an impact.  If not, then the business will look upon you as being “out of step” with the business and therefore not aligned.

I’ve seen just about every fad imaginable aimed at making people better at what they do.  Some of these have been based on scientific research such as psychometric tools and some have been much more “fun-based”, such as drumming workshops.  Regardless of the interventions you select, your business must completely understand the reason why these interventions were selected and the benefits they will bring.  I’ve seen interventions fail because L&D hadn’t spent enough time engaging with the business and explaining why they were adopting various approaches and the benefits they would bring.

Stop right now!

Go back a few paragraphs to when I talked about the CIPD online poll.  If for any reason you’re not totally clear about the strategy, strategic direction, goals or aims of your organisation then go and find out.  Do not under any circumstances attempt to move forward until you thoroughly understand the following:

  • the vision of the organisation,
  • its goals or aims for this year and the next three to five years,
  • operational challenges e.g. cost pressures, new plant and machinery, mergers, acquisitions, new markets etc.,
  • pressure from competitors,
  • value proposition of the organisation or its products, and
  • high-level financial information such as income, expenditure, margins etc.

Clarity needs to occur at all levels within a business.  In my experience, the further you travel away from senior management, both in terms of status and physical distance, the less clarity there tends to be.  I’m sure that most of you reading this post will at some point have played the game “Chinese Whispers”, where the message is altered slightly from person to person until the final message bears little, if any, similarity to the starting message.  A classic example of this is the old army message of “Send reinforcements, we’re going to advance” which, by the time it’s travelled to its intended recipients, has become “Send three and fourpence, we’re going to a dance”.  Distance and changes in status are major causes of key messages becoming distorted and two of the reasons why large organisations invest so heavily in internal communication teams – because they need to ensure that the right messages are reinforced in the right way, always.


The first step in achieving alignment is all about achieving clarity.  If L&D don’t know the direction of the business then they can’t begin to supply the most appropriate learning solutions – it’s as simple as that!

Call to action

Take some time to review your organisation’s strategy – I mean really take some time to understand it.  Assess your current activities against the needs of the business. Are they aligned and do they help deliver the strategy – and if not, why not?

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3 replies
  1. Nick Leffler says:

    I absolutely agree with the message Jonathan, the only problem I see might be in how the business disseminates the strategy.

    It’s hard to know exactly what problems to tackle and what direction to point yourself in when that information is readily available always.

    I think this is where senior management and leaders need to better communicate with the company. They need to adopt the work out loud style of work so others can follow their lead.

    If a message is to be followed, make sure that message is clear and visible, otherwise nobody below them knows where to go.

    The fabled “steering comitee” is all to famous for this. To me they are this mysterious group of ondividuals who meet behind closed doors to determine the fate of what’s important to the business. They tell the people that report to them, then the message is lost in that heir archly structure that information is supposed to travel down.

    It often doesn’t make it’s journey downward therefore the message gets lost. I feel like if the committees findings and determinations were published or shared on the enterprise social network for everyone to see immediately, all departments and employees could more easily get on the ship.

    I definitely try to align what I do with the business needs that i see, but I’m not always sure those needs serve all the way back up to the top.

    I wish I did know better and would absolutely tailor my work to meet every need.

    So, to end my ramble, I agree with what you’re saying and L & D needs to do its best to meet the business needs, but also the business needs to do better at meeting the employee communication needs.

    • Jonathan Kettleborough says:

      Hi Nick,

      Thanks for such a great response. You are bang-on! It is the role of the leaders in the business not only to disseminate the strategy but also to contextualise this for every one of the people they come into contact with.

      When this happens then people in the organisation begin to understand what it’s doing, why it’s doing it and where they are along the journey. And the good think is that as L&D we can play a major part in that dissemination. Here’s a true story . .

      I once worked for an organisation operating in an industry that was in turmoil. This organisation set a bold, clear strategy and as head of L&D I ensured that every Head Office training course was opened by a member of the senior executive who would explain the strategy and answer every question they could.

      The result, hundreds of people from a wide branch network heard about the strategy directly from a senior executive. We also had local briefings, videos etc. This organisation made it through the turmoil, is now number two in their sector and has taken over a number of its old rivals.

      Best wishes.



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