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Strategic & Operating Reviews Part 2: Alignment and Failure

Alcide DeGagné

In my previous post — Strategic & Operational Reviews: We Can’t Agree to Disagree — I discussed the fact that SOR will bring changes to the Public Service, whether managers want it to happen or not.  It’s coming.  The success or failure of these changes will be dictated by two key concepts: alignment and conflict management.  And these must be dealt with at the strategic level — leaving these issues to those individuals charged with implementation will almost always result in failure.

Why does alignment matter?

Boiling the concept down to essentials, alignment matters because it decreases the amount of energy it takes to go from A to Z.

If your program is not aligned with public expectations in terms of services offered, ease-of-access, or customer experience, then it is likely to fail. While you may still get from A to C — or even to K — with some misalignment, you are living with friction and energy loss.  But when alignment kicks in, the program really scales.

A great example is the dramatic improvement of Passport Canada performance as reported by the Auditor General of Canada (AG). Many recall the bad publicity and headaches, if not heartaches, of just a few years ago when your passport was up for renewal. Passport Canada has worked hard at improving their processes. But their focus on aligning strategy, planning, and operations has paid real, palpable dividends for the citizens of Canada.

What are the areas where alignment & conflict is pivotal?

It might risk over-simplifying a complex topic, but I find that there are three areas where alignment & conflict management is pivotal:

  1. Aligning the program promise with the public’s needs;
  2. Alignment of the Government’s interests with the executive team’s goals; and,
  3. Aligning what services the program should offer and which public segment we focus on.

The Program Promise

The alignment of the Program’s promise with the public’s needsis somewhat analogous to the concept of “Brand” in the business world.

Billiard balls-275x412If you doubt that notion consider the RCMP "brand”.  For many years it was regularly put in the same company as Coke, Disney, and other world-famous brands. Fast forward to today and look at the RCMP brand in our own country… I leave you to read between the lines.

Seth Godin says it really well:

Long-term brands and relationships are built on alignment.

The Wal-Mart relationship: I want the lowest prices and Wal-Mart is committed to giving me the lowest prices. That's why there's little pushback about customer service or employee respect... the goals are aligned.

The Apple relationship: I want cool products and Apple thrives on creating innovative products. That's why there's little pushback on pricing, obsolescence, or disappointing developers.

There’s an important lesson here for government; if program brands do not align with the targeted public needs, there will be pushback!  Our consumer society looks at everything through this lens.

Promise and Clarity

As we speak, the Privy Council Office is requesting proposals to bring the federal government’s branding into the 21st century. In and of itself, this is a both a laudable and necessary goal. But, consider the pyramid of federal programs addressing a broad variety of publics in a multicultural society.

Add to that a current requirement to retool and rebase those same programs to eliminate the national deficit, and the question emerges, “Is this the right sequence in which to do this?”

Taken together, the task is formidable!

Josef Jurkovic nails the alignment challenge in the Postmedia News article, Pimping my Canada: Ottawa seeks fresh new brand image for the 21st century:

“It will require exceptional clarity about how we want to brand the government of Canada and what we will do to live up to the promises the government is making”.

Political and Executive Team Alignment

The alignment of the Government’s interests with the executive team's goals is one of the significant “elephant in the room” issues for the public service.

Given that it’s a tough thing to deal with only emphasizes the importance of the need to do so. 

On day one of a new program, the Public Service (PS) team and the Government are on the same page; both plan for a big outcome. However, needs shift, stakeholder interests become rigid, a new government comes in, and PS execs fatigue. The magic window of opportunity that was there in the beginning narrows dramatically.

Back in the late-70’s, I worked on preparing Air Canada and CN for privatization. Both companies were costing the government tons of money and had long outlived the original policy justification for setting them up in the first place. Both were privatized some five years later. Today, we wouldn’t dream of government ownership of these two transportation giants.

Clearly this experience demonstrates the need for ongoing, intelligent change of government services and programs.

Aligning the What with the Who

At any stage of a program, you'll have competing priorities.

As a start-up, you will face challenges in design and delivery of your initial service offering, quickly followed with incremental fixes and upgrades — meanwhile, you will be designing and building your next generation.  Of course, all of this takes place while searching for funds to breath life into the program.

And you'll have to figure out which public segments to serve.

Some new initiatives provide a "middle of the road" solution that pleases no one. Some start with one offer then switch to another as they follow shifting trends and current events. And then there are those teams who never really make a decision — and so try to do everything well.

Without alignment, without clear decisions and strategic direction, you end up with the Yahoo peanut butter solution; you spread yourself so thin that all value is lost.

You think this doesn’t happen in government?

In business and in government your brand promise can only be understood in terms of, a) how much money you need, b) who your key customers are, and c) the quality of the service experience.  These are thorny questions.

That’s why alignment is so hard.

 

Update:
This series continues — Strategic & Operational Reviews Part 3: Change and Failure.


 

 

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Comments

Nice blog Alcide.  I particularly like the bit about about the privatization of Air Canada and CN.  It reminds me that it’s OK to expect public servants to exercise a little imagination - as that is what it would have taken back in the 70’s.

By Greg Tricklebank on 2011/09/07

Thanks Greg. I my experience there is not a lack of people with imagination in Canada’s PS. The challenge is to corral the ideas, the effort, and the resolve to push through.  To do that, the political resolve needs to coalesce with PS leadership along with really engaged & imaginative employees.  That’s why I think ALIGNMENT is so critical in terms of smoothly integrating public need, political will, and PS execution.

By Alcide on 2011/09/08

Rebranding Canada by the federal government is a laudable concept, and indeed a long overdue action. However, one has to deliver on branding exercises (as do Apple and Walmart); otherwise the result is not just a waste (in this case) of taxpayers money but Canada’s slow slide backwards vis-a-vis the rest of the world.

I just finished reading Andrew Cohen’s (2003) “While Canada Slept.” Our plight has deteriorated further in the past eight years.

Superficial branding exercises need not apply.

By Jim Taggart on 2011/10/06

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About this Article

Posted by Alcide DeGagné
Posted on September 7, 2011
3 Comments

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Categories: change management, current events, management, public service renewal, strategy