Earlier here, I introduced AUTHORITY, EXPERTISE and INFORMATION as dimensions to consider in determining if and why to collaborate with different parties. Importantly, this decision is driven by what you need from other parties and not whether or not you like them. For context, let’s say we are addressing complex supply chain relations that directly affect the sustainability—economic, environmental and societal—of today’s business models.
The net/net of the earlier column was, if you have all three of these elements, collaboration is optional.
THE “2 out of 3” SCENARIOS
#1 – No AUTHORITY – Sell the idea
The extent of simultaneously moving parts in most business functions creates a situation where those managing the work cannot be familiar with all the intricacies. Having information and expertise usually means that you can see the consequences of a decision (e.g. “No, we can’t just ship in larger quantities to make sure we meet demand; the expense and risk of housing inventory in that particular location is prohibitive.”).
The approach here is to “sell” the right idea. If you have fostered a degree of “benefit of the doubt” with the “authority” figure, this can be very easy. If the relationship is not there yet, this will demand a thorough understanding of that person’s interests, and a savvy ability to tell them what they need to hear. This is the realm of persuasion and communication skills. In my view, it is the responsibility of our informed experts to get these ideas through.
#2 – No INFORMATION – Help me help you
The final scene in the Cohen Brother’s movie “Burn After Reading” illustrates this situation perfectly (and hilariously), but in real life these interactions can horribly frustrating. Picture a situation whereby you are a competent cook and you have the authority to make whatever you want for dinner. Yet your question “what do we have in the house?” is met with either:
1 – “Well, there is a lot of stuff in the house,” OR,
2 – A detailed list of “everything” in the house.
The fog created by the audience’s lack of expertise can thicken if they are at all intimidated by the degree of authority. These situations are quick to break down completely (e.g. “we’ll eat out tonight!” or “just let me in the kitchen to see for myself!”) The overriding “help me help you” desire can—time and patience permitting—also take the form of tolerating the lengthy list and taking what is useful.
#3 – No EXPERTISE – Hand over the authority
This is the flip side of “No AUTHORITY” and demands a large degree of comfort with the lack of expertise. But, no, this doesn’t mean abdicating completely! Those in authority are tasked with taking a wider look at things, so, to use our first example, they understand the trade-offs involved with running short on supply (e.g. disappointed customers), as well as the trade-offs involved with keeping more inventory (e.g. higher costs and risks). Taking all into account, they can arrive that the decision that does the “best” for the organization.
The interesting part here is the word “best,” which should come down to strategic priorities for sustaining business success, rather than “best” for specific segments of the company (short-term profitability) or individuals (least headache potential). With the necessary separation of expertise and authority, such strategic priorities need to be very clear. A colleague of mine and I consult with organizations to align such strategic priorities with elements of the triple bottomline (profit, planet and people) and to leverage those in engaging with various stakeholder groups. The ensuing conversations, though tough, are well worth having in preparation for evaluating such trade-offs.
If there was any danger of your supply chain getting dull, this can certainly spice things up nicely.
What kind of person are you: Competitive? Big-picture thinker? Assertive? Conciliator? Other?
Such tags tend to promise clarity, but bring in a bundle of behaviours and attitudes that may or may not relate. When these words find themselves describing quadrants or supporting wider groupings on a personality test, you almost need a glossary to explain the context (and the particular bundle).
I run into this with my working descriptions for negotiation strategies.
A couple of semantic challenges are:
- Even if you are not “a competitive person,” you can still pick a strategy of “competing” in a certain situation;
- It can make strategic business sense to “accommodate” the needs of others and you don’t have to be weak-kneed to do it;
- Collaborating with a party does not mean agreeing with them all the time, and you don’t have to be “nice” to do it.
I will suggest that collaboration is a default for supply chain initiatives, given that the relationships (internal and external) have to be maintained over a period of time and that, in today’s competitive (semantics again!) environment, there is no room for compromising the returns on time and dollars spent.
So do you have to collaborate all the time on everything? Not at all.
Before giving you the model, let me give you this:
Glossary of Terms
Information: Results, data, examples and findings that may help in determining a superior course of action.
Expertise: Orientation, experience and training that enable one to see relevant implications of a decision prior to its implementation.
Authority: Structural or informal power to direct the actions of others, coupled with accountability for the consequences of a decision.
If you have all three, there is no need to collaborate. Why would you? You have all the information you need, you know what is important for the decision, and your sphere of responsibility allows you to “make the call.”
This doesn’t mean that you have to be obvious about “going it alone,” but engaging others would be strictly for relationship-building. You will decide if this is worth the effort.
Tune in next month for an elaboration on what to do when you have “two out of three” (which “ain’t bad,” according to Meatloaf).
THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED IN THE AUGUST NEWSLETTER FOR THE CANADIAN SUPPLY CHAIN SECTOR COUNCIL.
Summer can give you pause to reflect on actions and decisions of the past…and question choices you made. One important decision in addressing some of the tension of collaborative environments is whether or not to involve (or use) others in conversations. Replay a situation as if the decision depended on a coin toss: Heads, enlist an agent; Tails, go it alone.
The Case for Heads: Buffer for Cultural Differences
In stakeholder discussions with my classes and my clients, we often delve into cross-cultural dimensions that can reflect in different values and motivations. Doing my undergrad in business in the early 90s, cross-cultural management pretty much meant dealing with Japan. Now, in this country – and specifically in supply chain – you likely encounter people from different cultural upbringings several times a day.
To deal with cross-cultural issues, I always ask those with firsthand experiences to share their insight. It is safer to address some prickly stereotypes from the “inside.” This particular dimension of in-group/out-group dynamics creates an opportunity to buffer cultural disconnects (including clashing corporate cultures) by involving someone who can see both sides, and, perhaps more importantly, is seen to be able to see both sides.
Call them “agents” or buffers, due to experience of circumstance, using people in this way can go a long way to smoothing some natural tensions, as well as offering translations, including when “maybe” really means “no,” as can be the case with the Japanese culture.
The Case for Tails: Fight Your Own Fight
One of the case studies that I used this summer in my negotiation class involved a classic showdown between a beleaguered airline and its union. In a recent discussion, a student, who was sitting with me to “negotiate” a portion of the final grade, reiterated his position that management should have used a third-party mediator. The rationale being: no emotions, just facts. It really is simple, or at least was in the student’s mind.
If you have ever been “buffered” in this way, it can actually set off an entire new range of emotions that reflect frustration in not being able to make a case directly and suspicion that the “mediator” (or agent) will not accurately reflect your interests. I wonder, in retrospect, how this student would have reacted if I had appointed a third party to hear his case for an improved grade.
Many times you have to “fight your own fights,” if not for control of the situation then to establish yourself for this and future interactions. Relationships matter.
The interpersonal side of collaboration can be exceedingly complex. That said, there are some instances where the decisions are clear (e.g., work through someone or address a situation directly). Context can give you an idea, but rarely do we get certainty. Experimenting and taking chances (coin tossing?) can create situations that you can reflect upon and learn from.
There are two questions arise whenever a change initiative hits a snag that requires a decision: 1) “Who can make the call?” and, 2) “Who knows best?” Such is the interplay between authority and expertise in moving change forward. The manner in which individuals manage this interplay can have drastic effects on the success or failure of any given improvement initiative.
Authority – Who’s in charge?
Things are straightforward when the person who should make the decision has the visibility to come up with the best answer. Small operations, where the founder/owner knows every detail of every process, supplier, procedure, etc., will fall into this category. It is not long, however, before organizations reach a size where authority and expertise sit with different individuals. In the SMB space, as well as with larger corporations, necessary functional divisions make it impossible for those at the top of the organizational chart to see everything beneath them. Culturally and structurally these organizations have to create an environment where information flows up and down. Also, different layers of management can create a dynamic by which those at different managerial rungs will be tempted to cover their respective backsides, on the off chance that results are not as favourable as expected.
Two things to watch out for in the authority structure are:
1.Are those in charge accessing all the information that they need to make decisions?
2.Are those in authority taking responsibility for the decisions they make (or should be making)?
“No” to either of these will hurt implementation in every case.
Expertise – Who knows best?
There is a human tendency to over-recognize ones own expertise (and I say this as an expert in interpersonal communications in change environments…). In process improvement projects, however, those “doing the work” can add significant value by sharing their “on the ground” expertise. Familiarity with the day-to-day operations provides excellent visibility to identify areas for cost and/or time savings. These process experts may not, however, have visibility for the overall operations or the wider improvement initiatives that are underway.
Good information comes from tapping into the expertise at all levels of the organization. This may sound easy but can get hung up on a couple of areas:
1.Managers who have “come through the ranks” may have to realise that times might have changed;
2.In engaging the “rank and file” managers must foster trust and manage expectations (e.g. just because I am asking you what you think, doesn’t necessarily mean we are going to do it.)
3.Once the decisions are made, managers have the responsibility to “close the loop” with those whose expertise has been tapped.
Authority and expertise play different and important roles in enabling the most effective changes to take place. The interplay has the potential to slow or stop some of the best initiatives from smooth implementation. I would suggest that more responsibility sits with those in formal authority to reduce the interpersonal noise that habitually arises. This type of “micro leadership” can pay macro dividends as the right information moves to the top of the pile.
This originally appeared in the September 2008 e-Newsletter for the Canadian Supply Chain Sector Council (www.supplychaincanada.org).
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