Type “Competition + Process Improvement” into the News section of your favourite search engine, and you will likely get a story (or a press release) that talks about a company overcoming new-millennium hyper-competition. The focus is on the solution (especially if you land in a press release), but one can imagine the work that goes into getting to solution. Not to mention, sustaining it. You may be living that “work” right now.
The classic problem-solving methodology is very straightforward: (1) identify the problem, (2) generate possible solutions, and (3) pick the best one. A prerequisite is to maintain a rational and objective focus, along the lines of “Getting-to-YES” style negotiating. Emotions cloud those operating “in the moment,” but in situations where parties (willingly or not) have to collaborate, distortion can come from many different – and surprising – places.
Rightly or wrongly, we have all pushed back (or been pushed) with a challenge to the legitimacy of our interests. Parents talk about “needing vs. wanting” ice cream after dinner (remember all those children that go to bed hungry); in the workplace, we ask people to separate “nice to have” from “need to have.” In all of this, the message is that “need” trumps “want,” which may cause some subtle limitations to successful results.
Too often, “need” identifies one potential solution (”We need a better inventory system”), while “want” can get to the root goal (”We want to remain competitive with as few changes as possible”). The wording and semantics may seem a better fit with strategic visioning than with everyday discussions, but think of the “want” behind some of these “need” statements:
- “We need more budget to do this project.”
- “We need to reduce head count.”
- “We need support from management/other divisions/the union.”
At the risk of treading into a discussion on inspirational leadership, visions talk about wants (or hope) that would offer almost-universal solutions. Each of our above “need” messages offers a solution that will become a problem for at least one other party:
- Extra dollars come from someone else’s budget;
- Head-count reduction hits “Joe Plumber” pretty hard, and
- Support takes other people’s time and energy.
The first thing to identify is a problem that we can all address. The corporate vision statement may do it, but the responsibility may fall to leaders and micro-leaders.
- “We want this company/unit to remain in business/this country.”
- “We want to reach a sustainable operating size.”
- “We want our company to be more responsive to external change.”
Far from being flowery, these may convey the real, wider-reaching need for change and improvement.With a recent MBA class of mine, the discussion focussed on an idealistic entrepreneur’s encounter with venture capitalists (from CBC’s Dragon’s Den). In the “identify the problem” stage, the initial class consensus was “she needs money,” (which, by the way, is the whole reason for going on the show in the first place, right?). I would (and did) argue that a focus on what you want to accomplish changes the discussion from “give me your money” to “do you want to help me do what I want to do?”
The difference can be very subtle, but can be extremely important. The latter offers more options, including, for example, referrals to other contacts or organizations if the dollar return happens not to be there. Money is one answer, and it may be the only one. You risk not finding out for sure unless you explain your vision. It is not simply a matter of substituting words (find and replace “need” for “want” won’t do it). Try switching the approach to the problem…from mine to ours. Some leaders/vision statements do it well; other times, those in the day-to-day discussion have to help identify shared problems.
This originally appeared in the October 2008 e-Newsletter for the Canadian Supply Chain Sector Council (www.supplychaincanada.org).
I was called “naive” this past week during a conversation with a client.
The context of the comment was skeptical rather than critical because I had suggested that it was possible to have productive conflict conversations where teams neither like nor trust each other. My optimism/naivety comes in no small part from three books, whose titles and approaches complement. Below is the list, and at the risk of minimizing each work’s unique contribution, I provide one essential take-away from each:
- Getting to Yes: Use objective criteria as support; be receptive to objective support for the other position.
- The Power of the Positive No: Distill what is unacceptable (e.g. your “No”); pursue the acceptable/desirable.
- Getting to Maybe: Dialogue creates opportunities; extend the dialogue by latching onto the “Maybes”
So how does this help a conflicting senior team discussion when all niceties and “benefit of the doubt” are long gone?
You don’t have to have “the answer” (e.g. the Win/Win “Yes”) to provide support to a position. Those at the top of the org chart should be prepared to explain their rational, even if it is: “I don’t know for sure, but I think we need to do something and this approach is closest to the strategy that we are all working towards.”
MAJOR ASSUMPTION #1: One hopes that this can be correctly interpreted as, “If you don’t want to do this, you will have to change my mind.” Our org-chart topper has to be truly open to having their mind changed, provided the counter proposal is grounded in objective information… no matter who brings it forth.
MAJOR ASSUMPTION #2: One also hopes the dissenting second-in-command has intrinsic motivation for the venture to succeed. This motivation doesn’t have to be financial, but certainly could be based on self-serving profit sharing. It could also be interest in job security, emotional investment in the project/team/venture, pride in overcoming a challenge, etc.
Remove either of those assumptions and hope for a quality result is, indeed, naive.
If you are the team CEO, project head, team lead, etc., are you really open to dissenting opinion from those that report to you? If you are not ready to listen, you better be “enlightened.”
If you are on the team and you don’t like the direction: (1) are you motivated to express your dissent (as opposed to holding out for a personally satisfying “I told you so” opportunity); and (2) are you prepared to back up the position to move from “I told you so” to “I tried to show you so” with objective support?
Look up or forward to thoughts on “No” and “Maybe.”
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