Activity Alignment

by Flemming Funch, 8 Jan 95.

An "Activity Alignment" is a tool for helping oneself or others align their goals and activities and put their plans into action. We address the key components that are needed to initiate and maintain meaningful action, find out what they are, and ensure that they agree with each other. If any of these components are at odds with each other, working in different or opposite directions, then the activity at hand is at best ineffective. The exercise is to identify what the components are and to get all of them into alignment. One can do an Activity Alignment for oneself, for a business, a marriage, or any other endeavor one could imagine.

There is a great deal to know about each component and there are other aspects that might require attention. But the basic layout is a very effective way of monitoring an activity. These are the basic components:

Each is a whole subject in itself. There is a certain hierarchy to them, but more importantly, they are different activities happening in parallel that need to be aligned. Let me just explain each one briefly:

Any activity has a BASIC INTENTION . You are doing it for some reason. That reason is usually a big, general underlying intention or desire. It is an idea of a direction. It is moving towards something desirable that one would like more of. Or, alternatively, it is moving away from something one doesn't want, but that works much less well as a planning tool. A Basic Intention would be "To write stories", "To help people", "To be wealthy", "To work with animals", "To eradicate poverty", or something like that. A general type of activity or direction.

DESIRED OBJECTIVES are more specific goals. That would be a list of big targets as relates to the activity. If the basic intention was "to write stories", the desired objectives could be "to have a good publisher", "to write a bestseller within two years", etc. They are fairly finite events that will show that one has accomplished what one wants. They need to be big enough so that they signify completion, but small enough so that they are actually attainable. "World peace" might be too big and outside one's sphere of influence, if we are doing this for an individual, whereas "To join the Peace Corps" might be a practical objective. For a big organization, like the United Nations, "World Peace" might be a very appropriate objective to have. Generally speaking, the big general ideas one is working towards fit more under basic intention. Under desired objectives we put the goals that are more finitely attainable for the person or organization at hand.

For any long term activity to work, it must have a TANGIBLE OUTPUT along the way. That is, there must be something that is produced that can actually be experienced as a fact. There must be a product that isn't just a generality. Either something physical is created or something measurable is happening. It is very important to be aware of what that output is. It needs to be something that is being produced on a short term basis. Something more of this substance needs to materialize at least every week or month. Placing attention on this keeps the activity firmly grounded. It becomes more apparent that one is supposed to do something physically and actually, not just think or talk about it. The Tangible Output will be something that in itself is desirable and useful to somebody. It must have a value, somebody must want it, and must be better off for having it.

A QUANTIFICATION is needed to be able to measure the output. It is not enough to just produce something valuable. It needs to be tangible enough that we can actually count it or measure it. That Quantification will allow us to keep an eye on how well we are doing. The Quantification needs to be chosen so that the count is un-ambiguous, so that which is counted is really the desirable output, and so it doesn't depend on opinion, but on mechanical measurement. If you are working on making people happy by selling them humorous books, then the books and people's happy faces are the tangible output. In terms of quantification, we can't practically speaking count happy faces, but we can count the books. This gives us a statistical way of monitoring how well the activity is doing. It is important to choose the quantification so that it is central to the activity. Profits in dollars is something you can count, but if your main intention and objective is to make people happy, it might not be the most appropriate one.

Operating in the physical world will necessarily give certain EXISTING RESTRAINTS. There will be certain limits to what you can do, there will be a certain framework you have to operate within. That includes the laws of the area you are in, it includes commitments you have made, it includes a scarcity of data, etc. You have probably agreed to abide by certain rules in various contexts that will limit what you can do. There might be certain priorities you find important. Maybe the activity at hand is important, but not as important as something else, such as your family whom you need to spend time with. The Existing Restraints will mostly be the stuff that you regard as inflexible, that you have to fit into.

The IDEAL STATE OF AFFAIRS would be the perfect conditions for partaking in the activity and producing the desired products or results. With that I don't mean the final end result of the whole thing. It is the day-to-day situation that would be most conducive to the activity. Not wild dreaming, but simply the most convenient way of laying out affairs. Not, "If I just won 10 million dollars in the lottery", but rather "Well, if the staff are happy, and we have everything laid out to best service the customers, and we answer the phones within 2 rings, and we have brochures explaining what we do" and so forth. Not something that requires drastically different resources than you have, but something that is fairly realistic. And it must be the ongoing condition. Not the end goal, but the state of affairs for producing what is desirable to be moving towards the objectives. If the objective is to build a boat, then the ideal state of affairs is not the perfect finished boat, it is rather a workshop with all the necessary tools, having the help one needs, and knowing what to do.

The ACTUAL STATE OF AFFAIRS is how it actually, honestly, is at this moment. It is important to take an unbiased inventory of what the current scene is. Not how one would LIKE it to be, not how it is SUPPOSED to be, not how the rules say it is, but how it ACTUALLY is. What is actually being produced, is it good quality, are there backlogs, how do things look, what do people say, how is the morale? This might be difficult if one is right in the middle of it, but the idea is to take a step back and make a neutral assessment of what the state of affairs is.

The AVAILABLE RESOURCES need to be examined. That is the raw materials and tools and information and people and energy we have available to work with. It is a good idea to be thorough and list everything that could be a resource. Often one might overlook the resources one really has. List everything that is available to you or under your control, even if it is not clear at the moment that it could be used for anything, including your collection of comic books and your mother-in-law's proficiency in knitting.

Next we need an ANALYSIS. That is, we need to look at what we are trying to accomplish under which constraints, we need to compare the actual state of affairs with the ideal state of affairs, we need to look at what resources are available, and then we need to get a bright idea on how we are going to go about it. The Analysis should discover where we can accomplish the most with the least effort, that is, how our activities can be most effective in carrying out the intention. Sometimes that takes finding what the key thing is that is wrong with the current state of affairs, or finding what the key asset that is available is. The idea is to step back and do an unbiased analysis of what is going on compared to what SHOULD be going on, and hitting on the main things to change or strengthen.

There needs to be some OVERALL PLANS made. Not only for carrying out the overall objectives and activities, but also how to do it in the manner judged to be the most effective according to the analysis. It is not a blind plan, it is a plan based on examination of the situation and determining the best approach. Plans should be written down, not just spoken about. They should consist of definite steps. "1. Buy an old van, 2. Equip it as an ice cream truck, 3. Get a license to sell ice cream." The plan will be in fairly big chunks without all the detail. A good plan will have maybe 5 to 20 specific points on it.

To elaborate on the plan, there will be DETAIL PROJECTS. They might or might not be written up. Each project might cover one point of a plan. Like "Buying a van" would be a project. There might be a number of actions that need to be done to do that. We can't foresee exactly what problems one would run it, or how they will be solved. A Project is basically that somebody takes responsibility for getting something done and does whatever is necessary to make it happen.

The DAILY ACTIONS are what one is actually doing, right now, on a daily basis. The activities that are actually taking place and how one is spending one's time. If I spend two hours on getting the air conditioner to work right every morning, that is a daily action. If I call up customers and talk with them on the phone for a few hours, that is a daily action. It is desirable that the daily actions actually fit with the current projects and plans and the overall scheme of what we are trying to do. And it is desirable that my actions actually produce a tangible output that is useful to somebody. All of that is desirable, but it might or might not be what I am actually doing.

The Activity Alignment is a tool. It is a tool first of all to formulate and structure something one wants to happen. If one is starting something new, it can be a good way of putting some meat on it and actually getting it started. If something is already happening, it might contribute to making the pieces fit together and be pointed in the same direction.

The ideal is that these elements are aligned at all times, all the way up and down the list:

That is, the objectives should represent the basic intention. If the intention is "to have fun", then "joining the military academy" might not align. The plan needs to fit with what the objectives are. If the existing plans are written for something else, then one probably isn't going to accomplish the objectives. The ideal state of affairs should be specified in alignment with what it is that is desired. The tangible output produced should be in alignment with the ideal state, and must be what is actually intended. If we are producing assault rifles, but the basic intention is world peace, that might not match. What we quantify must match with what we actually want to see happening. Measuring how timely the employees are might not measure our desired outcome of having satisfied customers. The projects that we actually work on must be in accordance with our planned direction. If everybody's putting the files in alphabetical order, but our determined direction is to deal with the customers, that might not work well. The daily actions, what people actually are doing, must again be in alignment with the intentions and ideals. If people are doing something totally different, then of course we aren't effectively getting what we want. Finally, the actual state of affairs should as best possible approximate what we would like it to be to best get the results we want.

In real life situations, in a company, or in somebody's life, you will naturally find that these are not aligned. People are very often doing something very different from what they intend to do. And there will be lots of good "reasons" for why that is so. Your job as a consultant is to get things moved towards alignment. That is not necessarily instant, but just addressing the idea of alignment, and shining light on the different elements will make a big difference.

It is a good idea to take notes. As a matter of fact this is almost impossible to do without it. Sit down with the person or with the group of people. Thoroughly get an assessment of what is going on for each element. In the first place just take them one by one. Don't think much about what they SHOULD be, just get what they ARE.

When the list is written down, it will become apparent that things don't match up. At least if it has been done honestly. The thing is then to work with these different elements, getting them aligned. Not just by changing the words on the paper, but by actually getting people to align the different elements needed to produce an effective activity.

This can well be an ongoing activity. One can refer back to the activity alignment sheet once in a while and check how well things are in alignment, and one can adjust the stuff that isn't.

Activity alignments can be done on all kinds of different areas and for any kind of person or group. It can be done for a country. A useful thing to do with a person is to lay out an Activity Alignment for the different domains of life she is involved in.