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Project 13 | Lateral Alignment in Complex Systems

Lateral Alignment in Complex Systems

Project Category: Interdependencies and policy assessment
Project Number: 13

The air transportation system in the United States is complex, and with several inter-dependent government agencies having a say in its operation, managing and advancing the system is a difficult challenge. We refer to this challenge as “Lateral Alignment in Complex Systems,” defined as:

“Formal and informal patterns of interaction that orient and connect inter-dependent stakeholders over time so as to advance both their internal, separate interests and their combined, system-wide interests.”

The Joint Planning and Development Office (JPDO) established a series of Integrated Product Teams to ensure a proactive approach to the anticipated tripling of demand for air travel and transport by 2025. To prepare for the projected 2025 system requirements, the JPDO initiative brings together FAA, NASA, EPA, DoD, DOT, DOC, and DOI — with oversight by the organizations’ secretaries and administrators. The social and technical challenges facing this group require an integrated systems approach reaching beyond traditional organizational and institutional boundaries. This project investigated means to further understanding and to address the challenge of lateral alignment within and across stakeholders brought together by JPDO to advance planning and management of the U.S. air transportation system.

The major findings from this study include:

– Behavioral Alignments

  • Current communications and information sharing efforts, including the use of Web-based technologies, are an important enabler, helping to build trust.
  • Traditional chain-of-command models of leadership are not adequate when many issues require coordinated effort across multiple independent stakeholders. New methods of leadership, rooted in influence more than authority, are crucial.
  • Operating collaboratively across stakeholders will require new forms of negotiation and conflict resolution.

– Functional/Structural Alignment

  • Workflow has to map to and accommodate the full range of mandated current-state government functions that reside in each agency, as well as the additional activities associated with effecting systems change.
  • There is a need for new forums and governance mechanisms, as illustrated by the creation of the JPDO Environment Integrated Product Team. If the new forums are to realize their full potential, they will need increased recognition within the respective organizations as valued forums, along with recognized leadership responsibility for certain domains or issues.

– Strategy/Systems/Values Alignment

  • System design and management is clearly a core competency that will be of ever increasing importance in the years to come.
  • Values and assumptions vary considerably across different federal agencies with respect to their views on private sector industry, investments in science and technology, and other matters. While culture change is never quick, awareness of and attention to these underlying values and assumptions is essential for long-term re-alignment.


Massachusetts Institute of Technology


Ian Waitz, Professor, Aeronautics and Astronautics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, iaw@mit.edu


Lourdes Maurice, lourdes.maurice@faa.gov


Enabling the Internal Organization to Support Lateral Alignment Across Stakeholders: A Case Study of the Office of Environment and Energy, Federal Aviation Administration. Joel Cutcher-Gershenfeld et al. October 2006. (Report No. PARTNER-COE-2006-005)
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