Updated: Jun 15
The following is adapted from The Art of Alignment A Practical Guide to Inclusive Leadership by Patty Beach.
Have you ever thought to yourself, “I wish I could get this employee or team to do _______?” No matter what you would write in the blank, you know the frustration of not being able to move your team forward on a goal.The good news is that the solution may be staring you in the face.
That employee or team may be waiting for clarity. While your vision may be crystal clear to you, it could represent chaos and breed insecurity with those it could affect.
Using the steps outlined in this article will help you bring your team from chaos to clarity around a shared vision for a new idea. I call this moving an idea from “divergent thinking” to “convergent thinking.” That standard process is contained within these four steps of alignment.
Step #1: Propose
The first step is to create a proposal of your idea that you present to your group for deliberation. Your goal is to propose a committed conversation with your team that includes a commitment to specific actions of accountability. It’s important to develop the proposal yourself or enlist someone in your group. If you don’t feel confident about what to propose, gather ideas from a wide circle using one-on-one conversations or crowdsourcing techniques, such as a brainstorming session, running an online survey, or hosting a focus group.
Once you have narrowed down ideas, you are ready to create your proposal or to delegate the task to someone else. Remember, a proposal is like a first date; you aren’t married yet, so don’t get too attached. Here’s some tips for putting it together:
Keep it Simple: Remember that your goal is to generate discussion so your idea doesn’t die.
Keep it Short: If a proposal is too long and complex, it will be difficult for the group to process. One to two pages is about the most information your team can consider in one session.
Use the Rule of 3s: Limit your messages to three main points. If you present more than three ideas, you run the risk that one point will be forgotten later.
Don’t Be Fuzzy: Be specific enough that people can visualize your ideas. Don’t fall into the trap of overgeneralizing to avoid a negative reaction.
When the presentation is ready, ideally you should circulate copies before the meeting. You should also have copies in the meeting while also projecting the proposal visually using slides or a flipchart.
Step #2: Probe
The Probe step is when everyone gets a voice. This step is when you probe your audience for more ideas and engage them with collective thinking. Collective thinking should not be confused with groupthink, which is what happens when no one challenges the leader or the most popular idea.
It is not unusual for ideas to be presented followed by an open-ended question such as, “Reactions?” or “What do you think?” In my experience, this method of probing can go wrong in two ways. The first is that it can result in radio silence or a meaningless affirmative answer like, “Sounds good.” What appears to be agreement is just complacency.
The second most likely thing to occur is the pinball game, where ideas bounce around and get batted at but eventually just roll down the hole only to be followed by another round of balls.
Instead of probing in a random way, collect and develop feedback using a formula I call the 5 Cs of Collective Thinking: Clarifications, Compliments, Concerns, Changes, and Commitment, in that exact order. First, ask Clarifying questions. Next, encourage Compliments about the proposal. Then you are ready to explore Concerns and Changes that can resolve the Concerns. Finally, test for the last C — Commitment — with your group in the next step.
Your audience will want to jump ahead. Don’t let that happen; instead, hold the line and make sure they follow the Cs in the right order at the right time.
Step #3: Re-Propose
After taking a break to integrate the feedback into a second version of the proposal, this re-proposal is then presented to the group. This is when that 5th C — Commitment — comes into play. Use polling to generate suggestions for changes until the desired level of agreement is achieved.
The Re-Proposal step provides a clear picture of how the views of the group have led to a better proposal that can now be finalized. The re-proposal should include only the ideas that most resonated with the group. Lean toward those ideas shared by decision-makers, informed experts, and those responsible for implementing solutions. Give the preferences of these key stakeholders more weight than those of people the final decision only casually impacts.
If the group has provided feedback that steers the re-proposal in a direction you have serious concerns about, you have two options. You can either accept the wisdom of the crowd and present a re-proposal that aligns with their views, or follow your own judgment and reject the feedback.
Generally speaking, if you want the group you are working with to not only back the final decision but to actually own the outcome, don’t ignore their insights. Do your best to find a way to create a re-proposal that reflects the wisdom of the crowd.
Step #4: Close
Finally, you’ve reached the Close step — the stage in the process when all parties have reached the desired level of agreement. This is when you declare and document this close in writing with all the key stakeholders.
All too often, we neglect to close properly. We kick the can down the road, postponing decisions to a later date. This can be a big waste of time and creates a perpetual churn. Resist the temptation to continue debating until everyone is 100 percent satisfied unless you really need that level of agreement. If this situation persists, you have three options for closing:
Realize you don’t have the forces behind the proposal to make it work and shelve the proposal.
Ask for volunteers to work up a new proposal to be revisited at a later date.
Acknowledge that you have areas of misalignment and ask the whole group to back up the chosen course of action anyway. This is the best choice if you are facing a tight deadline and must take action.
Whatever you decide, make sure to nail down the close, so people get that you won’t be revisiting the decision later. Choosing to formally close doesn’t mean the topic can never be reopened, but it does signal an intent to commit and move into action.
Alignment = Results
By following these four steps of alignment, you will no longer have the feeling that executing new ideas has to be a frustrating, solo endeavor. Communication can be strengthened among your team so that good ideas become great ideas and poor ideas are avoided. This process will improve the cohesion of your team and their ownership of the outcomes.
Your ability as a leader to Propose, Probe, Re-Propose and Close will become the magic formula that works every time to shift uncommitted, chaotic, and divergent thinking into committed, clear, and convergent thinking. Ultimately, these steps will provide you with a proven path to align your team for positive change.
For more advice on overcoming gridlock by aligning your organization, you can find The Art of Alignment on Amazon.
Patty Beach is the founder of LeadershipSmarts, a consulting firm that transforms managers into creative leaders that build “teams on fire that never burn out.” Her approach to leadership development evolved over twenty years of designing award-winning programs for companies, universities, nonprofits, and government agencies. Before earning a master’s degree in organizational development from Pepperdine University, and becoming an ICF Master Certified Coach, Patty was a geologist and manager leading initiatives in new technology and emerging markets in the energy industry. Patty and her husband, Roger Toennis, also developed the Versatility Factor assessment to foster gender-inclusive leadership that embraces both masculine and feminine values.