The new how: creating solutions for collaborative strategy

According to author and consultant Nilofer Merchant, "For too long the business world has insisted that major decisions be owned by one part of the organization, the executive suite. Meanwhile execution and tactics are relegated to another part of the organization, those who actually get things done". In her new book, Nilofer introduces us to new thinking and tools to be used on the path to collaborative strategy.
Written by Vince Thompson, Contributing Editor

Buy-in, Commitment, Teamwork…so often repeated in the corporate hallways that each of these words earns a place in the Business Buzzword Bingo Card Hall of Fame. At the same time why are will still struggling with the notion of getting everyone on the same page? According to Nilofer Merchant, “The real issue is the systemic way we go about setting the direction and making tough trade-offs. For too long, the business world has insisted that major decisions be owned by one part of the organization, the executive suite. Meanwhile execution and tactics are delegated to another part of the organization, those who actually get things done.” In her new book, The New How, Creating Business Solutions through Collaborative Strategy, Nilofer Merchant shares what’s she’s learned in her business career and successfully applied for clients like Adobe, Apple and Nokia.

Nilofer, welcome to Smart Planet, you’ve coined the fun term “air sandwich”, can you explain?

Strategy is often regarded as a big “what”, as in “what we will do to be successful”, without sorting out the “how we will do it”. Implementation is about executing the “how”. Most of the time, organizations are handed the “what” of strategy without any guidance on the “how”, and no tools to sort out the important issues, and yet expected to go implement it.

I often use the metaphor that executives may decide that success can be achieved by transporting 100 people to a specific geographic location that is some distance away over mountains, jungle, river, etc. The organization is then tasked with achieving this success, without resolving things like what path or what vehicles will be used, and often without identifying which 100 people! This is the “air sandwich”, the gap between the “what” (Location XYZ) and the “how”. There are many ways to get from A to B, but organizations need to be aligned for success to be truly achievable, otherwise one group will gas up the helicopters while another group is climbing in Humvees.

How do you define collaborative strategy?

Collaborative strategy is working inclusively and cross-functionally to identify what matters to the organization right now, creating workable options to achieve the goals, and then choosing what will be done and (equally important but often missed) what will NOT be done, and who owns each piece.

So many of us have suffered the disconnects, can you talk about the benefits of collaborative strategy?
One key benefit is, as you suggest, eliminating the disconnects. The book has several examples of disconnects that are disregarded early, and later lead to disaster. A positive example occurred when I worked with firm that had noticed a disconnect, which was a deep disagreement between two groups about the pricing of a soon-to-be-launched product. Often it’s tempting to simply compromise on some middle ground, but fortunately we were able to work together and dig deep and identify the real issues. It turned out that different groups within the larger team were trying to serve two different market segments that had not previously been distinguished. Leaving this issue unresolved would have been quite costly, but clarifying it allowed the team to align and move forward effectively.

Another key benefit is empowering your team to understand the logic behind decisions, knowing what can change and what shouldn’t, so that adjustments can be made dynamically in rapidly changing situations. One of my clients was empowered to expand the company’s offering which led to satisfied customers quickly – so quickly that a VP was surprised to discover the new offering in a conversation with a happy customer!

How does one help their organization make the shift?

Making the full shift is tricky because changes must be made in many dimensions: process, mindset, culture, etc. Making changes in only one dimension or in one functional team might be beneficial but may cause strain. So it’s important to have a critical mass of agreement on the full picture of where the organization is headed. “The New How” can help by providing a basis for that unified full picture. But there are also many situations where one or a small number of individuals can make a huge difference. Typically, this can occur when an organization is primed for change. There are many steps that we can take as individuals and as leaders that will help our organizations make the best use of the talent already present in its individuals.

You talk about the collaborative leader having seven responsibilities, can you share?

As leaders, we are at our best when we enable our teams to be most effective, then letting them do what they need to do. In the chapter on leadership, I’ve indentified seven areas that belong more to leaders than to individuals (there’s an equally important chapter on the responsibilities of individuals). Very briefly, the seven are:

1) Manage Cadence (which is about maintaining the right pace through strategy creation activities)

2) Generate Ideas (enable effective brainstorming)

3) Nurture a safe culture (to allow risk-taking, and so that disconnects will get raised, not hushed up)

4) Develop connections (to support effective cross-functional shared ownership of success)

5) Satisfice (to stop striving for “perfect” in cases where “good enough” truly is)

6) Engage issues (so that disconnects get addressed)

7) Tracing Topography (keeping the team aware of where it is within the strategy creation methodology).

That’s a lot to keep track of, so I arranged the list in such a way that MINDSET works as a mnemonic to remember the elements. Leaders that take these responsibilities seriously will go a long way toward empowering their teams to adopt collaborative strategy. On the other hand, if leaders neglect these, then even a great group of individuals following a solid process will have difficulty making collaborative strategy work well.

What else can we learn about in your new book?

I would like people to come away with a richer perspective on people. The value of people is always being bandied about, but you don’t often hear about how hard it is for organizations to value the ideas that their people have. It often seems like “valuing your people” gets translated to “open mic night” or “design by consensus”, where all ideas are treated equally, nothing ever gets decided. In that fuzzy picture, it seems impossible to value your people and still have a rigorous approach. The reality is that we can create an approach and a culture that allows for inclusivity, openness and respect, while also being tough, fast-paced and decisive. It’s not easy, though. Individuals must sign up for their share of responsibilities in order to participate more. Leaders must sign up to support in order to create the most effective organizations.

On a separate note, I also want readers to be able to make real use of the ideas in “The New How.” Temptations always crop up when applying something new, and I have highlighted many of them throughout the book. For example, we are always pressed for time, and are tempted to skip steps. Sometimes shortcuts can work, but the danger is that we begin to do it habitually. By being thoughtful and conscious, we can accelerate steps when appropriate, but not get casual about it. Another temptation for many of us is to avoid conflict at all times. But conflict can be helpful in highlighting issues, and in any case is part of our daily lives. Pushing issues under the rug doesn’t make them go away. It is nearly always better to address them. By identifying many temptations, I hope to keep advocates of collaborative strategy “self-aware”, so that they apply the ideas with honesty and integrity.

Thanks Nilofer!

Get your copy of The New How

Learn more about Nilofer's firm, Rubicon Consulting

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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