Last few weeks, we spoke about company renewal and we concentrated on the rethink, reinvent and reposition processes. However, even the best process in the world won’t help if the dialogue between the decision makers and the working team is poor. In this instalment, we will discuss about this dialogue.
There are four keys to success for achieving an effective dialogue between decision makers and those charged with analysing and executing the decisions.
- Avoid consensus
- Avoid advocacy-based approach
- Use inquiry rather than advocacy
- Treat renewal as a project, not a process
Many companies tend to use a consensus approach to decision-making. The managers might think: For something as important as business renewal, isn’t arriving at a consensus the best way to go? After all, all of us will be working together to execute the renewal plan.
There is an element of truth in that argument for day-to-day decisions. Consensus in those matters works just fine. Everyone is familiar with the situation, the issues and the range of choices, so reaching consensus is not difficult.
But for a step as significant as business renewal, consensus is not effective. Consensus harms companies by preventing them from solving the difficult challenges they face. It holds a company hostage to its least creative and most cautious person. And it forces endless unproductive meetings with too many attendees trying to forge an agreement.
Consensus also harms the relationships between individuals and groups within an organisation. Under consensus, people silently blame each other for holding the organisation back.
During major changes like business renewal, leaders must do what is right rather than what is easy. It is in these actions that leaders earn their rewards, the respect of their peers and the pure satisfaction that comes from having done an important job with excellence.
Avoid advocacy-based approach (shooting arrows)
Business teams can get sideways quickly on decisions – sometimes so fast the decision process suffers major damage in the space of one meeting. In the advocacy approach, participants focus on one option only – this instantly puts the decision-making body in an ‘accept or reject’ mode, rather than weighing multiple options on a level playing field.
How does a review of a working team’s recommendations normally proceed? The first member makes the presentation. Then the questions begin to fly from the top managers. Why did you assume revenue growth of 4 percent per year? Why not 6 percent? Why did you assume our competitors won’t be able to match our price? Why are you asking for a 15 percent increase in marketing spending over the corning year?
Most of the time, the purpose of these questions is to identify weaknesses or errors in judgment in the analysis, insight and recommendations of the working team. You tell yourself that you’re not trying to be malicious. Rather, you’re confirming that a professional job was done by your workers.
Generally teams are trained to present only what they can defend. They define success as making it through the meeting without being hit by an arrow. Operating data is an excellent tool for dodging arrows, so members tend to present alternatives that are similar to what the company is doing today. After all, that’s where the data are most readily available.
Another consequence of the arrow shooting process is to stretch out the team’s schedule. Since they believe they must be able to answer any arrow shot their way, working teams go overboard in gathering information and running analyses. They do enough work to defend their decisions, which is often much more than is necessary to come to a strong, reasoned decision for renewal.
Of course, shooting arrows is fine after you’ve made a decision and once the execution plan is complete.
By that time the team has all the answers and the arrow shooting can check whether the ‘i’s have been dotted and all of the ‘t’s crossed. Clearly, decision makers need to ask questions before approving a plan - but they need to ask the right kind of questions.
Use inquiry rather than advocacy
Sometimes the working team creates a recommendation and then builds a case for why it is right. They see their job as selling their recommendation to you, rather than critically thinking and evaluating the possibilities. There is a universal truth—smart people, once they think they know the answer, become dumb people. They stop listening, stop learning and stop thinking.
Once they become associated with a recommendation, people drive it through the system. They advocate for their preferred course of action and stop searching for a better choice.
The inquiry approach, on the other hand, focuses on building insights into how decision makers and workers, through cooperation, can maximize value. Inquiry sessions are not passive meetings in which the workers present and the decision makers lean back and critique. Rather, these sessions consist of engaged - and sometimes heated - dialogue between the groups as they take on the difficult issues together. Inquiry places the focus on discussion rather than on presentation.
Questions are an integral part of both the inquiry and advocacy approaches but the type of questions you ask a working team will help turn advocacy into inquiry. If you force a team to defend a particular assumption, you will close down the discussion. Inquiry questions, on the other hand, open up the dialogue and focus both the working team and decision makers on identifying additional value. Inquiry questions stretch the thinking of the group, both on the upside and on the downside.
Here are examples of arrow questions and inquiry questions:
Arrow questions: Why did you assume 4 percent growth in revenues in the next three years? Why did you assume our competitors won’t be able to match our price?
Inquiry questions: How fast could revenue grow and how could we take advantage of a fast-growth scenario? What trends are driving the market price and where do we stand in comparison to others in the industry and to potential new entrants?
Arrows lead to low-quality conversations. The working team can probably mount a pretty good case as to why they assumed a 4 percent revenue growth rate. But they could probably just as easily justify a growth rate of 3 percent or 5 percent. On the other hand, if you ask inquiry questions, you’ll open everyone’s thinking and focus the discussion on how you can identify and realize additional value.
With the inquiry approach you have much more opportunity to guide and shape the thinking and the tasks assigned to the working team. You will be more active and involved with your working teams and can make it clear to the working team exactly what you want from them.
Renewal is a project, not a process
Projects have a start, middle and an end. They have timelines, milestones, deliverables and defined roles, responsibilities and accountabilities. Processes on the other hand, continue forever, just like accounting and marketing.
If you treat a renewal effort as a process, it will go on and on. There will always be more questions to ask, more information to gather and more work to do.
The renewal of your business must stay focused, move forward and push toward a defined end. Because renewal is so important, you must have an appropriate timetable and level of resources so that the project can be successfully completed. If during the project you feel there is a compelling reason to revise the timetable, do so but only after weighing the costs and benefits of delay.
From next week, we will go into specifics, in detail.
(Lionel Wijesiri is a retired corporate director counting three decades of senior management experience. He is now an independent consultant and a freelance journalist. He may be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org)