Alignment has its own place in Buzzword Bingo. It’s right up there with “engagement,” “synergy” and “strategy” in terms of misuse and misunderstanding. Cut through that by understanding different parties’ motivation.

Merriam-Webster defines alignment as “an arrangement of groups or forces in relation to one another.” Makes sense. But it’s too general. Instead, you must understand alignment motivations and their implications. Think in terms of five levels of alignment. From least to most enduring and powerful and building on each other:


    1. Forced alignment based on environmental or situational factors.
    2. Implemented alignment – actual behaviors.
    3. Alignment by choice for either strategic or tactical reasons.
    4. Personal alignment based on relationships.
    5. Causal alignment based on shared values.

Let’s look at the motivations and implications of each.

Forced alignment

Some people and organizations align because something or someone forces them to do so. These will stay aligned only so long as the pressure is on them. As soon as the situation changes, their alignment ends.

Think about opposing political parties forced to align to have any say in government. As soon as one of them grows strong enough to rule on their own or is pushed too far, they’ll jettison their collaborators.

Implication: Know this alignment is fragile. Keep the pressure on. Insist on binding contracts with sanctions for breaches.

Implemented alignment

In any case, words are cheap. As the saying goes, actions speak louder than words. Agreeing to align is one thing. Actually working together is another. Alignment of behaviors is better than just a stated alignment, but still relatively unstable.

Implication: Recognize and reward desired behaviors. Ensure there are negative consequences for undesired behaviors. This is about building and sustaining habits of alignment.

Alignment by choice

The difference between alignment by choice and forced alignment is who is making the choice. Those aligned by choice make the choice themselves.

If the choice is tactical, they will stay aligned only so long as their short-term tactical interests are shared. If the choice is strategic, they will work to build their capabilities and complementary capabilities together over time.

As one faceless, nameless and humorless lawyer explained to me, shared interest can be manufactured through financial arrangements. Certainly many private equity firms want the most senior managers of their portfolio companies to have a large portion of their compensation in equity so they and the private equity firms have a shared interest in increasing the value of the enterprise’s equity.

Other shared interests are tied to happiness: doing good for others; doing things I’m good at; doing good for me. Shared financial interest is about doing good for me. The various people working together to help victims of disasters share an interest in doing good for others. Performing artists performing together help each other do what they are good at.

Implication: Focus on incentives. Make sure all are recognized and rewarded for doing what you want them to do in ways that are meaningful to them.

Personal alignment

Relationships matter. Family members (at least some family members) and friends align their efforts because they know and trust each other. They have a bias to help each other in any given situation because their relationships were in place before the situation and will endure beyond it. They know that everything they do either strengthens or weakens their relationship.

Implication: Support and encourage the relationships at the root of these alliances.

Causal alignment

The most enduring and powerful alignments are based on a shared view of what matters and why. Those with a shared purpose are natural allies. They don’t need to be forced. They have no choice but to ally. Relationships, behaviors, and situations are secondary. For them it’s all about the cause.

Implication: Be. Do. Say. It’s not enough to say the right things to these people. It’s not even enough to do what they expect. Be sure you believe in the cause as much as they do and fuel their passion.