Book Excerpt: Why I Banned the Word ‘Alignment’ on My Team

By Atif Rafiq |  April 3, 2023

Innovation teams often struggle to gain alignment with colleagues up and down the org chart.

But in Atif Rafiq‘s forthcoming book, Decision Sprint: The New Way to Innovate into the Unknown and Move from Strategy to Action, he contends that “alignment before exploration” can actually hurt the business — even if unintentionally. The book outlines strategies for creating a productive problem-solving culture, through what Rafiq calls a “Decision Sprint.”

In this exclusive excerpt, Rafiq, who held C-suite roles at McDonald’s, Volvo, and MGM Resorts, and was the first Chief Digital Officer in the Fortune 500, delves into why large organizations often have trouble staying current; uses anecdotes from his time at McDonald’s to help illustrate his points; and offers advice on rethinking alignment in a way that accelerates progress.

Atif Rafiq, author of Decision Sprint: The New Way to Innovate in the Unknown and Move from Strategy to Action

The book will be released on April 25, but is available for pre-order.

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Upstream Pitfalls

Many companies claim to have a way of fact-finding, learning, or investigating before planning a strategic initiative or a solution to a problem. When push comes to shove, they will claim to use brainstorming, working sessions, workshops, stakeholder interviews, and other means to prove how they’ve done the necessary work. But there’s a real intensity and method required to the upstream work.

Here are some pitfalls I’ve observed at companies, whether they are Fortune 500 companies, fast-moving tech companies, or a 30-person startup. Note: I’ve been part of all types of organizations over my 25-year career.

One of the most common scenarios, especially in so-called legacy cultures, is “alignment before exploration.” This occurs when a limited set of matters and limited understanding of these matters cement a conclusion that is hard to undo. It is all too common for teams to experience executives who cement a decision based on limited understanding. The limitation could be a single overweighted matter or consideration. The consequence of this is to limit the amount of stretch or big thinking in the project. It locks in small decisions and, therefore, small actions.

Alignment before exploration can water down a strategy or opportunity without surfacing what’s possible. It could be that something bigger was entirely doable without major risk, yet those possibilities were never given wings. If you wonder why projects in companies are big and get a lot of attention internally but don’t move the needle for the external world, lack of exploration is often the culprit. Everything has been watered down, so what is being shipped to the customer is a “so what.” Big companies are replete with this. Teams are in a tizzy for months, even quarters, but what gets out the door is just catching up to the world. They’re perpetually behind the curve. But the LinkedIn posts celebrating launch continue to show up in our feeds.

For a company to endure, it needs to deliver “wow” and “OMG,” not “so what.” So we need a way to overcome or outsmart this potential pitfall in our organizations. I’m going to show you how to do that. But first, let me share a story.

Back to the early days of digitization of McDonald’s in 2013 when no one viewed mobile as a way for the company to grow (yet that was exactly my charter). The mobile app needed to be much more than a way to deliver promotions and coupons — what a yawner. I was instead motivated to use mobile to introduce new ways to use McDonald’s. To tap mobile to make McDonald’s convenient for the next decade and beyond. That’s why I was super intrigued by the idea of curbside pickup or fulfillment. A customer would be able to arrive at a parking spot and have food brought out. Some bright people on the team were bullish about the idea, and I wanted to give it a chance.

In my conversations with everyone from the board members to employees, I framed digital as a way to provide customers “new ways to use McDonald’s.” And that to enable this we would “introduce new service models” like skip-the-line ordering. It was all about taking the McDonald’s customer experience to the next level. It’s not a big stretch to say I was the first technology executive in the Fortune 500 to frame my work as the customer experience of the future.

The company had grown to $100 billion in system sales on the back of three ways to get McDonald’s: (1) drive through, (2) stand in line + order + get a bag for takeaway, and (3) stand in line + order + get a tray for dine-in. What if we could invent two to three new ways to use McDonald’s? It could lead to billions.

Turning back to curbside fulfillment, we didn’t know whether the idea could fly. After all, there were some real issues to solve. Would customers be allowed to order before arriving so we could save them time? When should we check in the order to the kitchen? Would the location services technology be accurate? What if customers didn’t show up and food was wasted? Would it translate to customers coming more frequently in order to justify the investment? What kind of training would the crew require? What if the parking lot was full of people loitering after finishing their meals in the car?

These were some of the unknowns. The unknowns did not scare me. As we’ve said, unknowns always characterize the start of anything big and meaningful. That’s why I didn’t want to kill the concept either. There was promise in thinking about what comes after the drive-through. Could this be a way to self-disrupt?

It was natural for me to push to innovate in the unknown. I’d felt my way through the dark before; it had been deeply wired over years and years. But some executives, understandably protective of what they saw as the McDonald’s way, had a fear of introducing a service model that would confuse and slow down operations. “Align.” It’s a word that can mean almost anything. That’s why it was uncomfortable when my peer desperately wanted to align the mobile app’s scope to limit it to the safest possible option. “Safe” usually means underwhelming to the customer.

…Unknowns always characterize the start of anything big and meaningful.

And when he mentioned it, I was like “sure, of course.”

Who wouldn’t want to align? But as you hear people out, you realize that what they want to cement or align is closing the door on new thinking or even collecting enough of the inputs to take a position.

It’s uncomfortable when parts of a company need to work together to ship something yet come from opposite mindsets. One part feels “this could be a game-changer” and another feels “we should come back to this later.” I knew that coming back to this later meant it could be years before we get to it.

In many companies, you’ll hear about a “crawl, walk, run” approach whereby all the exciting possibilities are laid out in some sequential priority. Crawl describes some of the easy wins, walk characterizes more advanced ideas, and run is when the team runs with the bigger and harder ideas. In many projects, items pegged for walk or run are never prioritized. They simply never materialize. The exception is when your upstream machine is working, and the velocity is high enough where we move through the crawl-walk-run stages quickly.

If we didn’t prioritize “looking at it” now, I knew it would be years before the idea could have a chance at getting commitment as a core part of the customer experience.

Here’s where alignment before exploration can be a real pitfall — when a conclusion is reached that an idea is too complicated to act on before it’s been explored. There’s a big danger when people at the top do this because they have the power to close doors for a long time. In fact, I was not “aligned” that we were ready to “align” on delaying this type of customer experience. I would be more comfortable to first surface enough key factors to inform a conclusion. To draw a conclusion (go/no-go, now or later, important or nice to have, promising or not), we needed better inputs.

My peer was accustomed to two people agreeing on a direction and informing the teams about the decision. At the very top of the organization, we could do this. Yet we were not close enough to the action to make the call unless there was an exploration of the issues we could review.

There was some good reason for my peer to hesitate to consider curbside as part of the mobile strategy and customer experience. Exploring in a big company like McDonald’s could take a long time. And as a corporate group building technology, his team already suffered from a reputation for moving too slow. Markets like Australia, France, Sweden, and China were already building competing apps, and corporate needed to ship something that would satisfy enough of the market need to be a good alternative.

One could look at curbside or another feature as pushing availability of the app further out. More scope could mean more time. That could be risky. At the same time, we needed to deliver something meaningful that would be noticeable to customers worldwide. And you can work upstream on an idea to explore its merits before committing to execution.

As I’ve mentioned in the Introduction, people have two reflexes regarding unknowns. They can shy away from them and rush ahead to planning based on what they already understand. In this mindset, unknowns make for a distraction. During the early days of transformation at McDonald’s, this is how I was asked to align — to push away the tough questions.

The other approach is to stay in research mode on an idea, which sounds promising, but can lack urgency and pragmatic focus. This is the risk my peer was reacting to. If we simply stepped back to give a team autonomy to study the curbside opportunity, a lot of time could elapse, and we wouldn’t know if it were worth it till the end. It felt like too much of a “trust and wait” model. Keeping initiatives in the lab for a long time without the prospect of seeing daylight would be wasteful.

Don’t Ban Alignment, Redefine It

There is a better way — I just didn’t know it at the time. Exploration that is purposeful and fast is the better way. And I will show you how it’s done in the next chapter. Exploration speeds up, not slows down, the outcomes you’re seeking. It’s not about giving people endless rope and being distant from their “research.” It’s about being quick and deliberate about what needs to be understood and building understanding together, pronto.

So how did things unfold at McDonald’s? It was somewhat tug-of-war. I leaned toward exploration, not only on curbside but so much more. New and more convenient service models to order food, our own payment card, contactless payments, loyalty, and even our own fleet for delivery. I offered that my group focus on problem-solving these concepts to see what’s possible. Another part of the company thought curbside delivery was a distraction and wanted to nip it in the bud.

We tried to convince each other. But we had no interface, common language, or way to communicate our instincts. We needed a better way to team up. And that’s why I’m writing this book. Unknowns should not drive a wedge; we should find better ways to team up around them to create a shared understanding. In business, we can’t afford distractions, nor can we afford to water down ideas and their potential.

It got to a point at McDonald’s where I banned the word alignment.

I would not allow anyone in the team to use it because it would spread the wrong way to think about our work. That was a blunt move, and I regret moving to such extremes. I did not have the language to explain why it would lead to pitfalls. I would invent the language over the next 10 years and am sharing this story so you’re equipped with the language to meet this maneuver with a more elegant tactic.

Aligning without exploring is limiting our ambition without necessity.

Banning alignment was a defensive move. It would have been better to push for exploration. Purposeful exploration to feed alignment. Aligning without exploring is limiting our ambition without necessity. If a team had the methods to show how exploration could be structured, I believe my peer would support this effort. I’m referring to exploration that feeds into alignment and a concrete decision point. Crafting a workflow that would be transparent and connect to a decision point, one way or the other. But the workflow was missing.

I will show you the steps in that workflow, how to get the sequence right and much more. You’ll learn how to avoid the pitfalls and traps, while being streamlined about upstream work.

What do I wish had been done differently? For starters, I would offer a solution to our disconnect. Yes, I would like to align after we’ve run an exploration. The exploration would be purposeful and would not require months. We could have some content to review in as little as a month. We would be able to shape the considerations going into the initiative to avoid blind spots. This strategy would be better for everyone involved. The most senior people would have high-quality inputs upon which to draw a conclusion. The working team would have breadcrumbs to connect what they explored to their recommendations. Keep in mind the refrain: exploration, then alignment.