Misalignment, Dysalignment & the Small Orange Cube

19 July 2019
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My brother is a great guy…and a great investment banker whose boutique firm uses the Haviland & Co brand that our family’s china business made famous.  We talked recently about business problems that show up because of misalignment between people.

First, some background… He and I do similar work – he focuses on the owner’s exit, and works with the leadership team to make the business better to support that, while I focus on working with the leadership team to make the business better, and as a result position the company for the owner’s exit.  We both talk about business value and ROI – but what I call mission and vision and strategy…he calls “the investment thesis.”

His experience is that when people come into conflict, it’s because they have different perceptions of what’s valuable.  As a guy who has brokered $700MM in deals, it’s not surprising to me that he’s got a special skill at recognizing different values, and helping people to common ground. 

As he describes it, when a small orange cube shows up, one person could focus on its small-ness, another could focus on its orange-ness, and another could focus on its cube-ness.  The way to get through misalignment, then, is to identify how each person defines value, get them to appreciate the different perspectives, and come up with a common understanding of the facts, their meaning, and what to do about them.

Most of the time, when in this kind of situation, we’re able to talk about the facts, and the person focused on the small-ness listens to the others and expands their view of the facts to include the orange-ness and cube-ness.  When everyone does that, it takes work to create alignment, but it’s not particularly hard to come up with a common understanding of the facts, their meaning, and what to do about them.

When “hard” misalignment happens – let’s call it dysalignment, to give it a dysfunction flavor – that dialogue doesn’t work.  Instead, there are blockages and blindspots that prevent people from seeing the whole picture.

As a business leader, the question is, when does dysalignment happen?  And why?  If we can understand that, then we can recognize when we’re in those positions, and take extra steps to create alignment. 

While talking with my bro, here’s what I came up with for when dysalignment happens…

At the core of values.  Not all of our values are equal.  Some we’re more flexible on, some are hard-core.  When a deep-set value of mine comes up against a deep-set value of yours, those values will create blockages to us being able to see the same set of facts and to being open-minded to see the other perspective.

At the edge of the investment thesis.  In all areas of life, we invest our time and resources with an assumption about what we’ll get for that investment.  Sometimes our investment thesis is clear and certain; other times, it’s unclear and uncertain.  If we start to get worried that our investment thesis is wrong – that we’ve made an investment and it’s not going to generate the results we expected – that is a time of high stress and uncertainty.  And that makes it hard for us to see other perspectives.

At the bottom of performance.  If something is not performing well, that creates stress…and calls into question whether we can trust the other people that we’re working with.  Why are we not performing?  What’s the cause?  Who’s to blame?  There is a lot of uncertainty and interpretation that goes into answering those questions, and because it’s so subjective and so stressful, we can be blind to seeing other perspectives.

At the height of uncertainty.  The edge of the investment thesis and the bottom of performance both involve a lot of uncertainty…and that uncertainty can show up at other times of change – with similar dynamics.  When we’re not sure what the “rules” are for how things are working around us, and we’re not certain what/who we can trust, we’re more likely to stick to our views and less likely to be open to alternatives.

My brother is right – when misalignment shows up, it’s time to talk about how people perceive value.

If that conversation doesn’t work, though, then you’re likely facing dysalignment, and the blockages and blind spots that come with it.  At the heart of dysalignment is the following question:  how do you deal with change, uncertainty, and the “boundaries” of performance (failure and success).  When we’re in The Comfort Zone, alignment takes work but is very achievable with the right people facilitating the right discussions.  If people are struggling with dysalignment, my preferred approach is to change the conversation to a “meta discussion” about being outside The Comfort Zone, and hearing how people handle being there.