Using Radical Alignment to Design Sustainability-Focused Organizations

PGS alum and bestselling author Bob Gower helps organizations design and build future-ready systems. He is an authority on lean, agile, and responsive organization design, and has worked with Ford, Spotify, GE, and many others. He teaches communication skills alongside his wife, Alexandra Jamieson. Bob is the author of Agile Business, and Bob and Alexandra co-authored Radical Alignment: How to Have Game-Changing Conversations That Will Transform Your Business and Your Life.

Bob Gower is on a mission to make teams effective, not just “nice.” We sat down with him to talk about his latest book, the new normal, and his research into what makes teams and organizations successful.

MR: Bob, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us. We’re excited to hear more about your new book and learn about what you’re working on now. Let’s dive in. What does “radical alignment” mean to you, and why is it so important? How does it tie in with sustainability?

Bob: My work with organizations, teams, and business models began with my work in design. Early in my career, I worked as the lead designer for the San Francisco Examiner and I became really interested in the concept that form follows function. This is the idea that however you use something, its design must adapt to that need. As I got further into my career, I started to wonder if that phenomenon could be reversed. In other words, will the way you design something, specifically organizations, change the way it functions? So as a consultant, rather than focusing initial conversations on an operational goal such as to raise sales, I started working with teams on their structure, starting with the way they were aligned with each other. We discovered that by starting with this strong foundation, open communication, and vulnerability, teams could improve their effectiveness and operational success.

With regard to sustainability, I started to think about designing the organization with sustainability embedded into every department, rather than layering it on top and then sequestering it away in a side office. When you put any lofty goal in a corner, including sustainability, you’re not aligning teams and individuals with that goal and it is likely to be overlooked in daily activities. So I started working with organizations to align all teams and individuals to sustainability practices as part of the day-to-day operations, and with this structure, we saw reductions in environmental impact.

This alignment of teams and individuals to each other and their shared goals is part of Radical Alignment, the concept I develop in my book. But the secret ingredient is that this can’t be a soft or surface-level exercise, it has to be a little radical, and the process to achieve this alignment will bring discomfort. Successful alignment means letting go of some of the hierarchy in workplaces and embracing more candor and vulnerability in the workplace.

And while we found that this approach could be really impactful for teams, we ran into a lot of failure with teams that weren’t ready to let go of some divisions.

MR: Can you say more about these failures you observed? How do you define failure in this context, and why do you think you kept running into it?

Bob: I saw failure often when the top level of a team or organization wasn’t changing itself or adopting new “teaming” methodologies. Teaming is a concept developed by Amy Edmonson of Harvard University about the need for teams to act and operate in team-like ways, not just exist as a static team. She has made teaming a verb and something leadership can practice and become better at over time.

A lot of leadership teams seem to want me to help them change their workforce for them, to step in, resolve conflict, improve engagement, and “make it better.” But obviously, it’s not that simple—there are a lot of divisions within companies created by long-term misunderstandings.

One common example is the gulf between the product teams and what I’d call the business side, or sellers. That conflict often extends all the way up to the top of the organization, where sales leadership often views the technology teams as a service provider to fulfill the needs and wants of the business, while the technology teams see themselves as the strategic visionaries who don’t want to dilute their product to bend to customer whims.

This chasm between departments is really a result of misalignment, and when leadership asks me to step in and help, I remind them that they need to start with themselves before they can expect their teams to communicate and work together more effectively. They need to establish ways to collaborate and communicate between these departments. Importantly, I also remind them that they can’t work on this alignment for only one day or relegate it to a separate department, that the work on achieving holacratic and aligned systems is continuous and a part of everyday activities, not just a part of a workshop. Once I got to have these conversations with leadership and they became receptive to this feedback, we started to see impressive results with the Radical Alignment and effective collaboration.

So when we start to fold in these layers of collaboration from the top down and make practices like sustainability, diversity, and communication a part of team activities, that’s when we really see organizations change the way they operate and design better products, improve relationships with customers, increase diversity and inclusion, and lessen environmental impact.

Alexandra Jamieson and Bob GowerMR: After addressing this misalignment between leadership and departments, how do you help teams develop the skills and relationships needed to collaborate effectively and rally around lofty goals?

Bob: To collaborate effectively, teams need to develop trust and the ability to be open and vulnerable with each other. We need people to share just one level deeper than they usually do at work. And that can be hard! So to help teams and organizations work through this and develop deeper understanding between team members, we’ve broken up the key parts of a workers’ identity into four buckets.

The first bucket is your values. What is important to you? Regarding your job, what’s important can vary—it can be the income, the experience, the mission, or anything that motivates people to work in their position. And all of those motivations are completely valid. We made this the foremost bucket because it’s central to achieving understanding between team members and it’s a good way to do some introspection. If we don’t know why someone is on the team, we might miss some important information down the road about how to work with them.

Secondly, we ask people about their fears—both rational and irrational. Our brains have a very strong negativity bias, and these fears can affect peoples’ view of teams and organizations. Where is the team under-resourced and worried things could go wrong? This examination of fears is a powerful tool to surface areas for improvement.

The third bucket is what people need in order to do a good job. This includes such considerations as when people work best, which styles of communication they use and prefer, and any personal needs that are impacting how they work. Some people have young children or care for an elderly relative, and people generally are in different stages of their careers. We want to make sure that each person communicates these needs and takes some responsibility for performing their best by becoming more self-aware.

Lastly, our fourth bucket is to discuss visions of the future. We like to examine what kind of future the team is working to create together—both within the organization and the world they’d like to create for their customers.

We found that these four buckets really sparked meaningful conversations and covered the key aspects for effective teaming and organizational success. And to work through these buckets, we have a conversation with four parts:

  1. Starting with intentions, which surface peoples’ values
  2. Then discussing concerns, which brings up fears
  3. Next asking about personal boundaries, which lead to peoples’ needs
  4. And finally a discussion of dreams, which allows people to express their visions

These topics were originally just the introductory part of our process, but people got so much value from it that we felt like it was the right choice to go deeper on these conversations and make them the crux of our methodology. And then we decided to actually write the book to help it scale, and we’re really proud to say it has helped a lot of people and teams approach these topics and make material improvements in their teamwork.

Bob GowerMR: That is an inspiring story, helping people achieve vulnerability at work in a way that is productive both for the individuals and the organization. How do you suggest teams and leaders get started building this kind of alignment, especially with the current challenge of working virtually?

Bob: Virtual work is certainly a barrier to having these conversations because the time is limited and it’s not quite natural. But like anything, the devil is in the details, and the real key is to have a few talking points to start the conversation and to allow people to feel safe to express themselves, even if they have to raise a virtual hand on Zoom.

We actually offer a free diagnostic tool on our site called the Team Toolkit that is a great place to start measuring the operational effectiveness and emotional landscape of your team. It’s unique because it takes into account those performance aspects, but also the emotional factors. For example, it measures if team members are empowered to have difficult conversations with each other and to disagree. That is an issue that is more interpersonal but can really hold back productivity.

So we start with this diagnostic to measure the difficulty of both communication and getting things done, and then we use these concerns to recharter the team. This helps team members rally around some group goals and set some aspirations for behavioral norms. When you take the time to talk about how the group would like to work and how they’d like to be treated, it can be a really powerful jumping-off point for your path to achieving alignment.

MR: Thank you so much, Bob, for these insights and resources to get started on building radical alignment. Before we let you go, we’d love to learn more about your PGS journey. What drew you to Presidio Graduate School and what did your time here mean for your career and perspective?

Bob: During the Dot-Com bubble days, I was doing some soul-searching about how to reinvent my career to fit more with my values, and I read the book Natural Capitalism by Hawkins, Lovins, and Lovins. Natural Capitalism is about using natural resources as the driver of a new industrial revolution and the idea of creating a closed-loop system that eliminates all waste, which I found really inspiring. I think the book brought a lot of people to Presidio Graduate School, and seeing one of the authors, Hunter Lovins, speak convinced me to attend so that I could align my career with these passions I had for sustainability.

I’d always had an interest in “making the world a better place.” Even as a kid, I worked at a recycling center before there was city-wide recycling—sustainability only became a corporate term while I was at PGS. My time at Presidio Graduate School was great, and I gained exposure to systems thinking and how to fit sustainable practices into the ways businesses operate. After earning my MBA from PGS, I got into software design and later into agile consulting, all with this dream of driving function with form and doing so in a way that made a difference in the world. I am grateful to PGS for helping me develop that perspective and hone those passions into a career that has brought me fulfillment and (I hope) has made a difference in peoples’ lives.