Why Alignment at Global Companies Is So Elusive

The bigger you get, the more important alignment becomes. But the more global you get, the harder it becomes. It’s not easy to align teams across both functions and geographies simultaneously. As Behnam Tabrizi reported in Harvard Business Review, 75% of cross-functional teams are dysfunctional. If you’re in an international role, trying to get the company to focus on improving execution in local markets on top of cross-functional alignment can seem nearly impossible.

The Hallmarks of Cross-Functional Success and Failure

What Tabrizi found in his research was that cross-functional teams need to meet five criteria in order to work well: 1) stay on budget, 2) adhere to schedule, 3) meet predefined specifications, 4) meet customer expectations, and 5) stay aligned with the company’s overall goals. As companies grow, it’s very easy for silos to form across functions (and even within them), and for teams to bury themselves in their safe and comfortable areas of expertise, instead of reaching out to work together.

When organizations struggle to come up with a systemic approach to cross-functional work, it can lead to companies missing their targets and falling short of their potential. Some of the reasons cross-functional teams end up not succeeding, according to Tabrizi, is that companies fail to actually prioritize the success of cross-functional projects. They also fall down on providing clear structure, explaining who’s in charge, setting goals that are specific and measurable and making sure there is accountability.

Working Across Many Geographies Adds New Dimensions to the Challenge

If you take a company that already has challenges with alignment across functions, and add in new geographic dimensions, this is where things can become overwhelming. Suddenly, you need to solve for alignment across teams, but also across countries, cultures, and languages. It’s hard enough to navigate different organizations within the same large business. Mix in a presence in many countries, and the challenge of alignment seems even more daunting.

So, what happens when the need for alignment is simply too vast, and the challenge seems impossible? Teams feel lost and in need of guidance, but unable to absorb local complexities on top of their already difficult challenges of both carrying out the work their team is accountable for, as well as aligning with other functions. They often feel they can do one or the other thing well, but not both. So, when you ask teams to additionally align across geographies, this is where the heads get buried in the sand. The attitude is often one of, “I simply don’t have the mental space to think about other countries and languages right now. Someone else, please do it for me.” Another (more positive) variation of this is, “I know this is important, but I can’t handle it just yet. Let’s revisit it later.”

Who can blame them? Very few people will voluntarily sign up for missions that seem impossible. People want to succeed, and will naturally back away from anything that seems overly complex to them. It’s important to have empathy for their reality. These teams might already be so overwhelmed that they can’t even hit their original targets, which did not include cross-functional and cross-geo goals.

Local Teams Want to Move Fast, But Often Can’t

What happens when we look past the functional silos and consider the challenge of bridging across geographies? In-country teams charged with growing in new markets often have an entrepreneurial mentality. But, those same local teams, usually focused primarily at first on revenue generation, depend on the other functions to work cohesively in order to grow a business in a new market. They are usually operating with the tremendous promise and growth potential (and excitement!) that comes with starting up a new venture in a new country or region. However, they tend to feel hindered by the bureaucracy and organizational silos that can come with being part of a larger global company. Usually, teams in new markets want to move fast, but can’t actually do as much as they like due to broader, global dependencies.

This means there are three basic scenarios that unfold at large global companies that are experiencing cross-functional distress along with growing (and stretching themselves) into many local markets at once:

  1. Locally empowered teams move ahead and make progress, distancing themselves somewhat from corporate strategy.
  2. Locally empowered teams slow down in order to comply with global strategy, even when it does not make sense for their markets.
  3. The company decides to intentionally focus on cross-functional + cross-geo collaboration, making this a strategic priority.

How to Align Teams across Both Functions and Geos

While achieving alignment across functions and geos isn’t easy, it’s absolutely possible. Here are four key steps that can help any company achieve this:

  1. Make it someone’s job. Put a leader in charge of global alignment — that is, alignment across both functions and geos. As is the case with many things in business, if no one is accountable for making alignment happen, it simply won’t get done. Asking regional leaders, or those who already oversee a large function, to fix organizational alignment problems is not a viable solution. Those leaders all have other jobs to do. Organizations may have to think creatively about who can not only take on, but lead with passion and positivity, to overcome such alignment challenges.
  2. Communicate why it’s important. Every organization struggling with alignment will find an audience full of nodding heads when executives start pointing out how ineffective and inefficient it is for a company to not be fully aligned. It’s the job of leaders to paint the vision of a better future, a high-functioning company that nails its execution, working harmoniously across functions and geographies. For this reason, strategic vision must be clear, not only to the people developing it, but to the leaders in other functions and regions. It’s impossible to over-communicate company strategy, but many leaders fall short of communicating enough on the importance of alignment across teams in order to actually execute against that strategy.
  3. Strengthen internal comms. Alignment often falls down because of a communication system that is underdeveloped or nascent. A strong internal comms system isn’t just a way of getting the word out to various teams from the top down. It’s also not just identifying more ways and formats for executives to communicate the same things. It’s a system that also includes strategies for the most effective ways to get the word out between and among teams, at all levels of the company, within different functions and within each geography where a company operates. Often, organizations think their comms system is “fine” when in fact it could be 10x more effective at supporting alignment. If your company routinely asks its leaders to deliver messages to “their” teams in a hierarchical fashion, this may be a sign that your comms system depends primarily on one critical path, your human management structure, and is not as robust as it should be.
  4. Focus on building trust. While a great process is a backbone that teams can adopt, if no one has the actual job of alignment, there will be no accountability for adhering to that process, no matter how great it may be. What leaders often learn the hard way is that simply talking about a new process is not enough for it to actually get traction and adoption at a large organization. You can standardize processes eventually, but in large organizations, that may take multiple years. In the early years, it’s actually more important to engender trust between teams, which again, requires improving communication and alignment. Focus on that, and teams will naturally be amenable to adopting a new process. But if you try to enforce a process before enough trust has been built, and before there is even a semblance of alignment to build on, teams are less likely to jump on board with any new process you might wish to roll out companywide.

The bigger you get as as a company, and the more functions and geographies you cover, the more difficult it becomes to align across functions and geos. If only 25% of companies can align successfully across functions, the number of companies that can do this and also align across geos must be the rarest of the rare. However, the select companies that can accomplish this are the ones that stand to deliver on the promise of a truly delightful and consistent experience to their customers, at global scale, setting them up for a very bright future.

Nataly Kelly

Nataly Kelly is an award-winning global marketing executive and cross-functional leader in B2B SaaS, with experience at both startups and large public companies. The author of three books, her latest is "Take Your Company Global" (Berrett-Koehler). She writes for Harvard Business Review on topics of international marketing and global business. Nataly is based in New England, having lived in Quito (Ecuador), Donegal (Ireland) and the rural Midwest where she grew up.

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