What most leaders assume about their organization or about any other person is that they have a much, much greater shared reality and perspective than really exists.  If the person you’re speaking to agrees with your point of view, the natural human reaction is to assume that this agreement extends to alignment on every aspect of the topic.

Let me give you an example. Say a CEO tells his team, we’re going to focus on channel sales because channel is a much higher leverage approach for us.  (Channel sales meaning focusing on third parties who will sell your products for you.)  Then the VP of sales nods his head and says, Yeah.  Exactly.

In that exchange the CEO is left with the impression that the VP of sales is completely aligned, understands, and believes in the CEO’s entire unspoken channel sales strategy because of that one nod.

Every person has different experiences. Thus, it’s far more likely that the VP of sales previously worked for another company that had a different approach to channel sales than the CEO’s approach.  The term “channel sales” probably means something drastically different to each of them, and the timeframe that each has in mind is also different.

Two Factors that Undermine Alignment

The underlying lack of alignment stems from those two things:

  1. Definitions
  2. Timescale


Language is an inherently clumsy model.  Language deletes, distorts, and generalizes some of the information.

If you have a thought in mind about a strategic approach, like the channel sales example, your thought includes all your past experiences.

It includes the answers to, how much training is appropriate when dealing with channel partners?  What is the best source for channel partners?  What does a good channel partner agreement look like? What kinds of channel partners are the most strategic? And so forth.

All those answers are baked into your understanding when you use the term channel sales. And if the other person nods in agreement, it’s your human compulsion to assume that that nod covers the entire understanding.

Another example of this starts at the job interview. I call them freshmen job interviewers—people who have not been very successful yet at hiring high impact teams.  In the job interview, the interviewer does all the talking saying things like, obviously results are really important to you, right?  What’s an example of where you produced really great results?

If it were a courtroom, you’d have an objection for leading the witness.  A person could successfully pass that job interview or appear to be qualified simply by agreeing, rather than generating his or her own thoughts and ideas.

There’s an easy way to determine the degree of alignment in your team. Pick out five or six keywords that are included in your corporate strategy or your initiative. Then go to each team member and ask what each of those keywords means to him or her.  What does channel sales mean to him?  What does optimize mean to her?

Don’t say anything, because if you give any hints about your own definition, they will nod their head in agreement and you’ll think you’re in alignment. If you don’t say anything, you’ll find out the actual definitions that are operating in your company.

With this simple method, I’ve discovered people who have vastly different definitions of things like ROI or even profit. Those differing definitions across key members of the team are going to have operational impact.


Timescale can completely change the definition of every term that you’re using. If you create an agreement, but you leave out the timescale, then you’ll have people thinking in drastically different terms. And this lack of alignment won’t manifest until the execution mismatch occurs.

A CEO might decide to start investing more in automation, but leaves out the timescale. So her IT department schedules some systems evaluations for six months from now. But her marketing department hires a business automation consultant the next day to start training people on new ways of automating their marketing systems.

Her team is going to be drastically out of sync and therefore, the investment that the IT department makes and the investment that the marketing department makes will both be worthless.

If you listen to most business meetings, timescale is almost always inferred or implied, rarely stated explicitly. And the assumption is that everyone is operating on the same timescale, but that’s not usually the case.

The bottom line—your organization is not as aligned as you think it is because you’re doing all the talking. You are assuming that when someone gives you the experience of agreement by nodding or regurgitating one piece of your 1,000-piece puzzle, that they agree with the rest of it. But the definitions you’re using are unique to you, as much as you’d like to think they’re universal, and your timescale is not correctly inferred by your entire team.