Getting Alignment: Some Helpful Aides for Action

Author: Mark Cabaj

The idea for this resource emerged during a retreat on Wasan Island for the SIX Funders Node devoted to exploring the challenges and opportunities of getting alignment on tackling tough social, economic and political issues.  

The retreat focused on the changing role of foundations, why foundations need to align and how they could do that. The following resources capture and organises the different resources or aides for action that emerged through various discussions throughout the retreat. 

1. Background

There are a few foundational ideas or principles about that should guide thinking and action when trying to get alignment across diverse people, organizations and sectors:

  • People and organizations can align on ‘ends’ and ‘means’. For example, residents and organizations in Tillamook County, Oregon, spent time developing a common agenda to reduce teen pregnancy, but differed widely in their means: some promoted abstinence, others, safe sex, others advocated education. They succeeded in reducing teen pregnancy by 75% in ten years.
  • Alignment can be positive or negative. The outcomes or agenda around which diverse people and organization may seek to align may be ‘good’ (e.g., saving a rain forest, Polish Solidarity in the 1980s) or ‘bad’ (e.g., collusion amongst pharmaceutical companies to set prices for certain drugs a) or debatable or in-between (e.g., OPEC setting oil prices to create certainty in the market).
  • There is a difference between ‘superficial’ and ‘deep’ alignment where people and organizations simply align on a relatively unexplored or poorly understood set of current values and interests or ‘deep alignment’ where shared aspirations and directions are developed based on a deeper exploration and reflection of values and interests.
  • Take alignment where you can get it. In his new book, Collaborating with the Enemy: Working With People You Don’t Agree With, Like or Trust, Adam Kahane argues that ‘conventional collaboration’ – a focus on getting everyone to agree on problem and solution – is sometimes inferior to ‘stretch collaboration’ where people only need to find sufficient ground to work on whatever areas they can agree on, even though these may fall very short of their hopes or ambitions.
  • Alignment building may be short term, one-off, enterprise or a long-term process that starts with small wins, building trust and confidence, opening up opportunities for deeper alignment. 

2. Frameworks

The following aides can be used to frame one or more elements of collaboration and alignment. They may not be accompanied by aides or techniques.

The Working Together Continuum

A framework originally developed by the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation (now Fieldstone Alliance) that has been adapted by different organizations to reflect different intensities of working together on common goals: e.g., communication, coordination, collaboration. It reinforces the idea that groups can work as loosely or tightly as required on aligned goals.

An example of this is the German Commission of Civic Engagement in Germany where diverse stakeholders in a cross-sectoral commission (1992) across the country developed a common agenda, priorities and pathways to support civil society organizations in a reunited Germany, but then were encouraged to act independently to achieve those priorities.

The Four Levels of Conversation

A framework developed by Otto Scharmer that describes four levels of conversation — downloading, debating, reflexive and generative dialogue – required for developing alignment and collaboratives. A good resource for sensitizing would-be collaborators to the need for multiple types of dialogue required to get to work together on tough issues.

3. Methodologies

These resources are collections of aides and practices organized around larger paradigms or frameworks related to collaboration and alignment.

Social Analysis Systems

A toolkit that includes approximately forty techniques for collaborative inquiry: the values-interests-positions exercise, stakeholder identification tools, etc… Offered in French, English and Spanish.

The Art of Hosting

An approach to collaborative that combines personal psychology and group dynamics to bring diverse people together on explore and work on complex issues.

The Partnership Brokering Association Toolkit

A systematic approach to developing and brokering cross institutional and sectoral relationships for successful partnerships.

The Circle Way

A collection of techniques that support a ‘circle format’ of decision-making designed to democratize conversation and decision-making.

4. Individual Techniques or Practices

Participation Circles

A process for core team, project participants, champions and others to keep people engaged, energized and constantly searching for alignment. See YSI Initiative as an example.

Closing with Acknowledgements

A simple exercise that asks participants to close meetings by acknowledging the contribution of each other, including those with whom they might disagree.  It creates a spirt of generosity, empathy and community, which creates the conditions for collaboration and decision-making, particularly on complex issues.

From A to B

To create share vision and burning platform for change that can be brought into by those with diverse values and interests. Allows individual views space to be hear but creates alignment. It is organize around to the questions: What must we leave behind? What would be come at our best?

Wisdom Council or Decision Circle

A participatory approach to inquiry that requires participants an opportunity to ‘adopt’ the perspective of another participant or stakeholder, often using structured questions (e.g., What does it bring to our staff? What would our partners think of this? What investment would it require?). It includes participants picking up a random card, with a participants or stakeholder name, answering the question with that perspective, and allowed to share their responses to that question, with the ‘persona’ in mind. After hearing multiple perspectives, the group can move on to decision-making.


An approach to visioning that encourages people to develop a shared ‘end state’ by describing a future – using lego, drawing, written word, etc.  and then identifying pathways that align to that end state.

The Opportunity-Ability-to-Executive Matrix

A simple visual that helps decision-makers assess the extent to which an opportunity is great enough to make a difference and feasible to execute.

The Influence Framework

A technique that helps change makers identify who to target to engage and support an initiative, organized by the extent to which an actor ‘influences’ an issue or situation and is “influenced” by that issue or strategy.

Challenge-Based Working

Encourages people to ‘act’ their way into agreement. Organizes a group’s thinking into doing by helping people self-organize into groups to tackle challenges, prototype solutions, and work towards outcomes, all in in 8 hours.

Comfort Circles

A simple framework that encourages people to acknowledge the need for ‘productive discomfort’, which is somewhere between comfort and danger.

5. Key Books

Collaborating with the Enemy (Adam Kahane)

An excellent exploration of the challenge of working with people you may not agree with, like or trust. It explores the three alternatives to collaboration, and the three key features of stretch – rather than conventional – collaboration.