A Simple Secret to Highly Effective Organizations

We know a lot about how individuals can be effective based on motivation and productivity.  For example, Dan Pink’s book Drive demonstrates why purpose, mastery, and autonomy are key to individual motivation.  Focus is key to individual productivity.

Simple Secret to Highly Effective Organizations - Mike Russell

But what about a business, government, or other organization?  What makes them effective?

Individuals are still important.  Purpose, mastery, and autonomy, along with focus, still apply.

HOWEVER!  It is futile to put lots of effort into organizational effectiveness if individuals are unmotivated and ineffective.  A rotten organizational core is still rotten no matter how much work is done around the core.  Working on organizational effectiveness will help the core but is insufficient on its own.

So what is a simple secret for an effective organization?

A simple secret to highly effective organizations is adding one word to purpose, mastery, and autonomy:  alignment.  The ideal is “highly aligned, highly autonomous.”

It doesn’t do much good if individuals are effective but are effective on things not in the organization’s interest.  The individual’s purpose needs to be sufficiently aligned with organizational purpose.  The individual’s mastery needs to be sufficiently aligned with what the organization needs.  The individual’s autonomy needs to be sufficiently aligned with organizational direction.  Done well, alignment will increase both organizational and individual effectiveness.

How can you as a leader start working on “highly aligned, highly autonomous”?

A great starting point is purpose.  Questions to ask and answer:

  • What is the purpose of your organization?
  • Is the purpose visible, easily understandable, and easily remembered?
  • If not, how will individuals align with the organization’s purpose?
  • How will you attract those who resonate with the organization’s purpose?

Make it easy to know and support the organization’s purpose.

Organizational purpose provides general direction to fulfill purpose.  Strategic plans, top-level initiatives, and the like provide the specific direction for alignment.  Starting points:

  • Are these visible and understandable for individuals?
  • Can teams and individuals directly and explicitly link their work to organizational direction?
  • Are there any metrics associated with direction?  Can teams and individuals understand and use the metrics to measure progress?  Do the metrics aid alignment?

Core organizational capabilities – organizational mastery – should align with organizational purpose and direction.  Starting points:

  • Does everyone know what the organization needs to be able to do?
  • Are any gaps clear to all?
  • Are team and individual development (both plans and programs) aligned with organizational development needs?
  • Do individuals have some autonomy in selecting development that aligns both organizationally and personally?
  • Is there understanding that autonomy – empowerment – requires individuals being empowerable or capable of autonomy?

Attaining and maintaining enough alignment of purpose and mastery takes leadership.  Paradoxically, achieving internal alignment and autonomy takes even stronger leadership.  Leaders must balance direction for alignment yet minimize detail direction for autonomy.  Proper balance will be neither autocratic killing initiative nor abdication inviting anarchy.  Starting points:

  • Do you as a leader work on that balance and visibly do so?
  • Are you selecting and training your leaders to do the same?
  • Have you thought through leadership implications of “command and control” versus “highly aligned and highly autonomous”?  The differences in culture?  In structure?

Autonomy for individuals is necessary.  Autonomy for teams and tribes (organizational units of many teams) is also necessary for fast adaptability and enabling individual autonomy.  Starting points:

  • Can teams and tribes operate independently of other teams and tribes?
  • What are the organizational structure implications?
  • Is emphasis on standardization for standardization’s sake?  Is it clear what standards and standardization (just enough) must apply across the organization?
  • Do you allow teams and tribes to adjust internally for their particular situation while maintaining alignment?

The starting points will help you be aware of your organization’s alignment and autonomy.

Awareness is the first step but is useless without application.  How can you start today?


By Mike Russell


Do you need any help with alignment and autonomy?  If so, don’t thrash or waste time.  Contact me to discuss more resources and other help for your particular situation …