Why is alignment on outcomes so hard?


Learning from success

I recently attended a conference where, upon reflection, I am once again just struck by the challenge of aligning on outcomes in the workplace. And how the inability to do so absolutely kills our capacity for organizational learning.

The context in this case involved community management professionals (practitioners who are skilled in managing online communities of customers, employees or both) and organizational learning professionals (practitioners skilled in designing and executing programs for professional development or customer know-how).

These two areas of practice share amazing potential when combined. Yet, they continue to struggle with a fundamental issue when they attempt cross-functional collaboration.

What is it that, collectively, we are trying to accomplish for the organization?

Let me share one success story from the conference that inspires hope.

One attendee presented a case study in which her online customer community generated significant impact. They started by defining clear, measurable outcomes centered on customer success and experience. None of the measures were lower-level community management metrics – such as community adoption rates, or engagement. The outcomes they focused on were clearly tied to customer success and experience.

Each year, the community management team engaged other functional teams in testing out different ideas within the community. The ideas were little experiments: If we did this one thing better in the community, might it ultimately contribute to improving our customer experience results? Test. Track. Learn. Test some more.

It was not one thing that contributed to improving customer success; it was a combination of many small things, collectively. And it was cross-functional. It was not just the community management team doing the work.

Alignment unleashed a lot of learning, innovation and impact.

I’ll add that the case study also highlighted the leadership and people skills required to pull this off. It is never a straight line. There was resistance, scrambling for resources, politics and uncertainty.

But in the end the organization settled disagreements with the results of its tests and the data it could analyze. They learned, as an organization, how to leverage alignment.

Why this matters

This matters. This matters a lot.

How do we, as organizational learning practitioners, expect to make progress on eliminating sexual harassment, or racial bias, or toxic cultures in the workplace if we struggle to align on the most straightforward of organizational outcomes – providing a positive customer/user/constituent experience?

Let me be clear: I am not suggesting that sexual harassment, etc. in the workplace and customer experience occupy some kind of equivalent space. Or that we unreflectively apply the tools of customer experience to issues tied so deeply with larger social dynamics (let’s NPS everything!).

What I am saying is that there is a certain mental discipline at work here that seems valuable across these contexts.

Agreeing on measurable outcome(s) describing a desired change is always a subjective exercise. No measure is perfect, but good ones seem to inspire opportunities for a range of theories and approaches to be tested.

If we cannot start there – alignment on a descriptive outcome of a desired change – we’re doomed before we start. Because the necessary mental discipline to make progress toward the desired change requires practitioners, across disciplines, to simultaneously bring their theories-of-practice into exploring the change while also allowing that their assumptions could be wrong. Uncertainty and disagreements can be settled by reflection on experiments and data. Teams and organizations that get to that successful place seem to be able to innovate across disciplines.

At the conference, the stories of struggle and lack of progress I heard all began with no ability to align. Two different disciplines – community management and organizational learning – were operating on two different sets of goals, and neither were clearly linked to a larger, more strategic outcome.

Organizational learning professionals were delivering programs, counting participation and maybe looking at “learning objectives.” Community managers were looking at community engagement and participation.

And when they came together – neither had alignment on that larger strategic outcome against which they could combine brainpower to address.

No common outcome against which they could each explore, experiment, reflect and challenge their own assumptions about what makes progress real.

And isn’t that the essence of organizational learning? To be able to explore, experiment, reflect and challenge your own assumptions?

If we are not able to do this on the low hanging fruit – and to me, customer success and experience is the low hanging fruit – then how can we convince ourselves we are capable of taking on bigger organizational culture challenges?

Photo credit:  Hello I’m Nik