Electronic Design

Perfect Alignment Might Not Be The Perfect Solution

Many managers want greater alignment between different members of their organization. They want everyone aligned behind the one best strategy. Although such alignment is superior to chaos, it isn't clear that perfectly aligned organizations are superior to those slightly misaligned.

Let us begin examining this issue with a story. In the early '80s, Motorola had a microprocessor, the 68000, that many developers considered to be superior to the Intel x86 offering. Unfortunately for Motorola, the x86 architecture was adopted by IBM for the original IBM PC and went on to dominate the industry. In the early '80s, if a time traveler had visited from the future saying that a semiconductor company had made inroads into the x86 market, who would have predicted that? The company with the technical and financial strength to do so would have been Motorola.

Yet it was companies like Nexgen, Cyrix, and AMD that became alternatives to Intel in the x86 segment. Did lack of alignment cause Motorola to miss this opportunity? The company probably recognized that its greatest strength lay in the 68000 segment, but the critical mistake was placing 100% of its bet on the 68000. In other words, it may have been too perfectly aligned around the most sensible strategy. If Motorola had bet on both 68000 and x86 architectures, it could have benefited from whichever one became dominant.

I suspect that "deviants" inside the company argued for such a strategy, but they were probably seen as "misaligned" heretics. Under the banner of alignment, a dominant strategy can easily eradicate other "heresies" as being contrary to the general good and undermining of alignment. But "perfect alignment" comes with three critical disadvantages.

First, maintaining such alignment generates a significant amount of overhead. Just like a controlled system with too narrow a control band, the organization must consume considerable resources in reacting to every minute deviation outside the control limits. A large police force is required for perfect control.

Second, the perfectly aligned organization responds slowly to change. Eliminating deviants creates a homogenous group aligned behind one approach. This is dangerous, as it's difficult to predict the single best path. In contrast, an organization that tolerates a dissenting subgroup gains a head start in responding to any market shift. It can easily increase resources for that group if the world moves in a different direction than expected. In such cases, the organization can respond much faster than if all deviants have been eliminated.

Finally, most studies of small-group problem solving show that dissent from within actually improves the quality of solutions. Perfectly aligned organizations tend to produce less creative solutions. Deviants force an organization to face constraints and produce more creative solutions. It's too easy for a perfectly aligned group to fool itself. In a classic study on group thought, psychologist Irving Janis recognized that the group that planned the Bay of Pigs invasion was intolerant of internal dissent. This caused it to consider few alternatives, exaggerate its prospects of success, and underestimate possible risks. Such behavior is classic among highly aligned groups.

So the next time you complain about lack of alignment, consider the disadvantages of too much alignment.

TAGS: Intel
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