News & Opinion

The New How

December 01, 2010


Is, actually, not so new. The book, beautifully penned by Ms. Nilofer Merchant, published last January, and got all sorts of attention.

Is, actually, not so new. The book, beautifully penned by Ms. Nilofer Merchant, published last January, and got all sorts of attention. I'm posting this now to refuel some of that attention. It's a great book about collaboration, and what better time of year to think about collaboration. As we come together for all sorts of celebration, both year end and holiday, what else can we do together, and what impact will it have on our business? The book The New How: Building Business Solutions Through Collaborative Strategy is not new, but the How Ms. Merchant discusses, is; it's about a different way to approach business, partnerships, and achieving goals. After reading the book, I followed up by sending the author further questions about collaboration. Her responses touch on ideas from the book and beyond. How should people go about choosing collaborators? Choosing collaborators is all about “Who can help us solve the business problem?”. We need people with domain knowledge about how to the real work happens, as well as people that eagerly want to see the problem solved – in other words, passionate people. I like to create an open invitation of “Who would like to play?” It may sound too simple, but this open invitation shifts the responsibility from “my problem” to “our challenge” in the very first step. Domain experts will sign on because they know they “should” be there. They matter because they’ll make sure you’re solving real, key problems and can talk at an operationally about what will work and what won’t. Since these folks are not necessarily part of the eager-to-solve-the-problem group, you may encounter some resistance. But you need to remember that even those who disagree with you have a role to play. A different perspective than yours on the issues is not something to run from. When divergent points of view have to come together, you almost always see a fuller picture of the situation as it is, and you learn what needs to get addressed before the team will buy in. Typically project leaders stop recruiting collaborators when they think they have the immediate functional roles involved. But whenever I’ve seen teams come up with break-through ideas, they almost always included people who simply want to solve the problem, or as I like to say, those who want to play. That includes: - Those that are not involved in the day to day operations but have an opinion on the problem/opportunity area. Opinionated folks are often strong influencers of others. - Creative problem solvers in different parts of the business. Orthogonal perspectives can lend that creative spark to identify unseen options. - Those who you’ll need to sign on to support the ultimate decision when it is reached. Sometimes, the twice-removed folks are the ones who can stop an idea from being implemented. By involving anyone who wants to play early, you can get buy-in from people early. Conversely, if these folks feel disregarded early, they are more likely to create obstacles later. Including those you’d rather not listen to gives you early signals for what you need to address. Bringing in passionate twice-removed gives you a new vantage of the situation. In short, go wide because it increases your chances of success in the long run.” This whole approach is a bit of “pay me now, or pay me later” in the sense that it makes more work up front in exchange for making this easier later. Later, if or more likely, when people complain, you can simply remind them that they chose not to participate. Sharing responsibility in the problem and its resolution is part of what collaboration is all about. What are some things that happen to an idea in a collaborative situation, and how can those involved be certain that it's on the right path? Collaboration cannot compensate for a lack of good ideas. However, most talented teams aren’t lacking in good ideas, but struggle to select which of these ideas makes the most sense for the organization. I like to describe this by saying that we’re not lacking a good “what” to do, but we need a good “why” to clarify what makes most sense for us. To be sure ideas on the right path, 3 things need to happen. - Generate Ideas: As you capture ideas, be sure to explore the "idea space" in some depth so that have some confidence that you haven't missed any important game-changer opportunities. In the beginning of the exploration, the ideas can (and should) be a little bit crazy. Allow for divergence of thought at this time to encourage creativity. Don’t make everything fit into what has already been done or could be done. Explore the issue, and the options. This idea generation phase should occupy about 30% of the time available (whether the time is 3 hours or 3 weeks based on complexity of the problem). - Develop those ideas. Develop the key ideas in detail. Key Ideas that meet with strong resistance should not just be summarily dropped. Make the people raising objections be responsible for seeking solutions. We need to go from “No can do” to “And we would need to be able to ..”. By identifying what is intriguing, and identify obstacles, you keep the ideas on the table so they have a chance to get the needed oxygen. Remember oxygen for ideas is time on the table. Very often, objections are some form of "we haven't done that before", or "that would be hard". Those can be real issues, but should not be idea killers. Instead, if an idea is compelling, the objections need to be made more detailed and quantitative before the idea can be dismissed. Allow 40% of your time for this. - MurderBoard. Get closure (convergence) on which idea makes most sense for you/your team/ your business. This includes clarifying what you will NOT do. The NewHow methodology around this is called “MurderBoarding” which allows teams to understand why any particular idea makes most sense at this point and time for this business. This of course takes time and needs to be allocated into the process, and you should allow about 30% of the schedule for this effort. Think 30-40-30. Generate divergent ideas, develop the key ideas further, then MurderBoard those ideas to get convergence. When the people who were in the room can explain which idea was chosen and WHY it was chosen to others not in the room, you have accomplished the goal of knowing what matters to this business and why. Alignment, execution, and what a lot of those good business buzzwords seek to happen, actually happen when you’ve engaged brains into the shared problem space. Can one be both a collaborator and a leader? Of course, an individual can be both a collaborator and a leader. Having said that, it is worth recognizing that business culture often defines the role of leader in a particular way, which doesn’t represent the full truth of most leaders. Most leaders play a multiplicity of roles: from idea generator, to problem solver, to troubleshooter to opportunity identifier, and so on. We need to stop thinking of the leader as just one role. That would be like saying impact of Batman was only about the guy in the cape. The full story of Batman includes key roles beyond the caped hero: Batman wore the cape but Alfred bought the gadgets and tools that enabled Batman to be Batman. Robin, the handy sidekick not only helped in each engagement, but he scraped Batman off the floor when needed. And let’s not forget the notable police commissioner who signals the needs. We as leaders play multiple collaborative roles and sometimes that means we signal, sometimes it means we lead a process. In some instances, it might even mean that we hire someone else to facilitate the process because he or she wants to be the content expert and opinionated in advocating for a particular point of view. The question really is this: what collaborative role can the leader to play in a given situation for the best ultimate outcome? Collaboration is – above all else – a means to an end, not an end unto itself. Perspective is an important issue in the book. How can both companies and individuals adjust theirs appropriately? Perspective is often about mindset, and mindset is often about assumptions. Work is complex, and we all naturally seek to simplify, and sometimes we oversimplify by not questioning assumptions. There are many common assumptions that are worth challenging frequently. For example: a) Good ideas can only come from leaders or experts b) When there are several good ideas present, we need to incorporate them all. c) Because an idea was rejected in the past, we should continue to reject it d) Including others in a process will result in "design by committee" e) If we listen to a person's ideas, but then choose not to adopt them, the person will be more upset than if we ignored them f) We can't criticize idea X, because it was part of the VP's pet project g) When people ask questions, they seem clueless h) It's better to be conservative and avoid risk as much as possible. And you can imagine dozens more. Each of those assumptions has value in some situation. But if they become cast in stone, they bog down creative new ideas. Remember that everything serves a purpose, until it doesn’t. And what brings an organization to greatness isn’t necessarily the same set of things that are still needed to go forward and win in the market. Some examples from just one company, Apple, to illustrate help bring this point home. Apple once considered themselves a computing company. But it was their ability to see beyond their history to design an iPad or iPhone to shift to be about great experiences. Another example is that Apple once created its own operating system, and today it uses Intel and (optionally) runs Windows. Thus making their solution available to more people. Apple could have easily said “we only do Mac” or we “design it all ourselves”. I could choose many companies to illustrate this point, and I chose Apple because I believe many people could see the history. But Apple is just an example. Almost every company that has sustained over time has reinvented itself also, by being willing to let go of assumptions and historical decisions. Assumptions are the things that create history, but also baggage. Once a year, have a symbolic "assumption burning". Start a habit of writing down the (sometimes now false) assumptions that everyone encounters. End of year, clean house. What are the long-term results of involving collaboration as part of strategy? You will have a more engaged team who understand why something is happening, and that means that more people in the business can align their 100 decisions they make on a daily/weekly/annual basis to the big picture. This collaboration then moves from doing “a strategy” to being strategic in all we do. When I’ve seen this work at Adobe, Symantec, and other good companies, it’s created a crisp, tight clarity for what matters and why and that team acts more like entrepreneurs inside the firm – doing what is right for the firm, independent of their title, organizational role, or rank. This allows you to move the whole organization to a more “meritocratic” footing, where outcomes and results is what is valued and politicking is discouraged. This in turn makes the organization attractive to high performers and unattractive to show-boaters. I’ve written that one of the things that makes Google, Google is they have maintained a culture of entrepreneurism as they grew by insisting on collaborative norms.

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