Alignment: From Vine to Bottle - The Grape

The Power of Understanding Yourself: The Key to Self-Discovery, Personal Development, and Being the Best You - Dave Mitchell 2019

Alignment: From Vine to Bottle
The Grape

Wine, wit, and wisdom. Wine enough to sharpen wit, Wit enough to give zest to wine, Wisdom enough to “shut down” at the right time.

— Anonymous

These next two chapters are extremely important, closely associated, and more than a little complicated. I will admit that I struggled to clearly articulate both their meaning and their value. The most important outcomes for the next chapters will be to understand how critical it is to have a well-defined and meaningful core ideology and a process for continually evaluating it. The path to each of these outcomes will be explained more fully in what follows, but let’s define what a core ideology and a process for evaluating it mean.

The term ideology has received some negative connotation in recent years. It has been used to express myopic or prejudicial thought. Our usage has no such meaning. For the purposes of extracting Me, core ideology represents our personal beliefs, values, and desires. They are a product of life experiences (inputs) and expectations (outputs). Think of your core ideology as the map that connects your past to your future.

The process for connecting our past to our future is what we use to both discover our core ideology and evaluate its effectiveness. Just like with a map, we would like this connection to be direct, aligned. Aligning who we are with what we want to be provides us a clear path to achieving a desired future state. In industrial psychology, this is known as organizational development (O/D). We will use some organizational development theories to guide our work. After all, organizations are simply groups of people who are responding to inputs with a goal of specific outputs. In this regard, O/D psychology is a perfect place to learn about big concepts that can be applied to our own journey. Considering that we spend the bulk of our conscious time preparing for, performing at, and returning from our vocation, it is no wonder that work has such a potential to teach us things about ourselves. I am no exception. My own pursuit of alignment and a meaningful core ideology was hugely influenced by my career.

A Master of Education degree (MEd) in Global Human Resources Development is not much of a conversation starter at parties. Thank goodness that I received an Advanced Sommelier designation, or no one would speak with me at all. Anyway, alignment and core ideology can be best understood with some context and models that I learned in graduate school. To fully understand the analogy, indulge me while I explain how organizations work. Think of it as receiving bonus education on industrial/organizational psychology in a book about cognitive psychology — a sort of buy-one-get-one-free thing.

Inputs and Outputs

Figure 3.1 illustrates what a perfectly aligned, healthy organization would look like on paper. It was inspired by the work of Thomas Cummings and Christopher Worley in their book Organization Development and Change. On the top left of the diagram you see a box labeled General and Industry Environment. This refers to all the factors that impact an organization — economic considerations (market, customer demographics, competitors, employment rates, etc.), regulatory considerations (local, state, and federal laws, taxes, politics, permits, etc.), as well as any other issue influencing and/or affecting a company’s viability. Think of all these components within the environment at inputs into the organization.


Figure 3.1 The concept of alignment in organizational development

The bottom right of the chart shows the desired outputs. With rare exception, there are three specific elements of business outputs that represent the “scoreboard” for success: profitability, efficiency, and stakeholder satisfaction. Profitability seems obvious. Unless the company can generate a profit for ownership, its long-term prospects are dim. There are exceptions to this, but the most common construct of a company requires it to provide a return for ownership.

Efficiency is a far trickier metric. As markets fluctuate, revenues often take a crooked path upward. Rare is the organization that experiences consistent, uninterrupted revenue growth. Having run my own business for 23 years, I have experienced the tech bubble burst, 9/11, and the Great Recession to name just the ugliest of the economic ebbs and flows over that period. Efficiency in organizational development — as it relates to my model — is the ability to withstand changes in revenues brought about by market pressures and remain profitable. Many companies experience profitability that reflects the fruits of a robust market only to become unprofitable when that market becomes soft. I witnessed this repeatedly among my clients. The best companies could maintain solid profitability after the drastic economic downturn in 2008. Others did not.

Stakeholder satisfaction represents the three-legged stool of the human element of business. For an organization to remain healthy and high performing, three entities must be satisfied with their experience: ownership, customers, and employees. One of the most basic truths about human nature is that behavior breeds behavior. It is nearly impossible for a person to continually treat others well if they are not satisfied with the way they are treated. In this way, behavior is very much like a viral infection. Happiness begets happiness; misery begets misery. If owners are not happy, soon employees are not happy. If employees are not happy, soon customers are not happy. And if customers are not happy, soon owners are not happy. All three must be satisfied.

Horizontal Alignment

A business, then, is a sort of living entity that successfully receives environmental inputs of and generates the outputs of profitability, efficiency, and stakeholder satisfaction. The first key to doing so successfully is to achieve “horizontal alignment,” shown at the top of Figure 3.1. Horizontal alignment requires identifying a core ideology for your organization that responds to the general and industry environment and propels profitability, efficiency, and stakeholder satisfaction. A core ideology includes a vision for the future of the organization and a mission for what you promote as key to your success. Let’s examine each of those components of a core ideology using a metaphor that most of us can relate to: planning a vacation. After all, a vacation is a great example of moving from an undesirable current state to a desired future state.

A vision is a desired future state for the organization. Think of this as selecting the destination for your vacation. Just as it relates to a business, one would typically imagine the vacation location to be an improvement over the current circumstances. There are two moments when a business focuses on a vision: at its inception, and at a strategic moment in a business’s lifetime when it becomes aware of the need for a new direction. The latter of these two moments will be repeated many times for a successful business since the general and industry environment (inputs) can change often. For example, when I started my own business, my plan was to provide training resources to small and medium-sized organizations as an external human resources development partner. After a couple of years, it became clear to me that the industry environment/market was more robust for keynote speakers and conference breakout facilitators. I developed programs that worked more effectively as keynote speeches and 90-minute learning modules. I marketed to larger associations and companies. To achieve my desired outputs of stakeholder satisfaction, profitability, and efficiency, I adjusted my vision.

When I was working as a hospitality human resources executive in Orlando, we faced two environmental factors that required us to adjust our core ideology. One, the sudden growth in competition had put financial pressure on our yield management. In layman’s terms, the room rates that we had been charging were historically higher than what many of the newer hotels were offering. Second, our hotel was quickly aging out of the fresh, new hotel market and into the established hotel market — that is, our hotel was looking a bit tired. Substantial capital upgrades were not scheduled in the immediate future, so we were faced with a competitive disadvantage as it related to the cosmetics of our property. We were not achieving our desired outputs. We were losing.

As is often the case when a company is experiencing a less than desirable current state of the organization, ownership was becoming unsatisfied. Referencing my earlier statement about behavior breeding behavior, I knew this dissatisfaction would soon create employee and, ultimately, customer dissatisfaction if not addressed. We were experiencing a textbook example of changes in our inputs creating a misalignment in our core ideology and, therefore, damaging our outputs. We lacked horizontal alignment. That’s academic speak for “shit was hitting the fan.” So, we endeavored on that frequent journey of corporate leadership: the retreat.

Our executive team went off property for three days to create a new vision, a desired future state, for the organization. Challenged by the twin obstacles of increased competition and no capital enhancements — and agreeing that reducing our room rates was not a viable strategy — we focused on competitive differentiators that required only a modest financial commitment. Immediately, we landed on the issue of service standards. We knew that service excellence was a potential advantage over the newer hotels in the area. We already had a system for training in place, but we had not integrated service excellence into our core ideology. So, our desired future state became “To provide the finest guest service in Central Florida — Five Diamond Service Excellence.”

Back to the vacation analogy. Once you’ve chosen your vision — your vacation destination — the next decision will be, “In what vehicle will we travel?” That is the mission. Unlike the literal interpretation as it relates to a vacation, for a company, the mission is a singular and defining quality that the organization will leverage to achieve its vision. Vision is the desired future state, mission is the mechanism to move from where we are today to that state.

Our new vision of Five Diamond Service Excellence posed a very particular challenge. We had already promoted service excellence as an expectation of our employees. How were we going to change our current state by embracing a new mission that seemed to be rooted in our current state’s culture? As we sat around the boardroom table, our president (Bob Stolz) shared a personal experience with service that became the basis for our mission. He related a recent trip to a restaurant at which he used valet parking for his car. After dinner, when the valet parker retrieved his vehicle, he quickly cleaned the windows with a squeegee. Bob was so impressed by this little extra special touch. He explained that most of our competitors provide great guest service. It’s not enough to do everything the guest expects. He told us that Five Diamond Service Excellence was one step beyond the guest’s expectation. “We need to do more than they expect; we need to squeegee them.”

And then it happened. The entire executive team looked at each other. “That’s it!” we exclaimed. We must invent a new word for service. A word that means something even greater than service excellence. We don’t just serve our guests; we SQUEEG our guests. SQUEEG — Service Quality Unequaled, Efficiently and Enthusiastically Given. SQUEEG became our mission. We recognized and rewarded acts of SQUEEG by our employees. SQUEEG was the vehicle for achieving our vision. That shift in core ideology launched a new period of success at our hotel, in the face of daunting competition and limited capital investments. Such is the power of a clearly identified and articulated vision and mission.

In winemaking, the concept of alignment is a little different and probably even more applicable to a better understanding of ourselves. The input, the general environment (or terroir), is literal. It reflects the soil, the age of the vines, the aspect of the land, the precipitation, the sunshine, the temperature, and length of the growing season. Over decades, these factors combine to determine the types of grapes that will thrive — the fruit that will lend itself to producing the best wine. How one measures the “best” wine is also determined in large part by the outputs.

Some winemakers approach their craft like an artist steps to a canvass. The wine they will produce from the grapes will be an expression of their creative vision. For them, the output is a work of art and the financial measures are of only marginal importance. Other winemakers are pragmatists, considering more commercial metrics as critical outputs. The same is true about our own search for “Me.” Knowing what you value as outputs will provide more clarity to your core ideology.

Finally, one must consider that life is not static. Our experiences continue to shape us as long as we live. It is true that as we age, each individual experience represents a smaller ratio to our total experiences and as such, tends to diminish their influence over us. But there are exceptions to this phenomenon. Just as companies can suddenly be faced with new competitors, technology, or regulations — and a winemaker must navigate an unusual vintage within their vineyards — a person may experience life-altering events. Sometimes these occur in the form of a singular, defining experience like marriage, parenthood, retirement, or tragedy. Other times they are the glacial-like developments that move without detection for years before we become aware of their existence.

As we move forward to applying the concept of alignment to our own personal core ideology, it is important to remember these points:

To understand ourselves, we must keep these three things in mind:

1. What are the sum of inputs that exist in our lives? We must understand the environment in which we developed and the one we find ourselves in today.

2. We must identify what we value as outputs. Do we measure of our success more on idealism or pragmatism? What role does money, happiness, spirituality, relationships, and other factors play in measuring Me?

3. Finally, we must remember that both the inputs and outputs of our lives may evolve over time. We will go through periods where our own core ideologies may be altered, even just subtly, to maintain our alignment. Extracting Me, like winemaking and organizational development, is a continuous cycle of evaluation.

But enough of the I/O psychology and winemaking talk. Let’s examine ourselves.