We’ve talked a good deal in past articles about the “New World Order” for employees in the 21st century. In The Element, Sir Ken Robinson showed us the fatal flaws in our education system; that what (and how) we’re teaching our children is destroying creativity and discouraging kids from pursuing the path that maximizes their unique strengths. In The Long Tail, Chris Anderson showed how the internet has changed all the rules; how it truly is possible now to run or be a part of a successful business in (virtually) any niche market, no matter how specific or minute. Seth Godin taught us that successful employees seek out and solve interesting problems and lead their peers in Linchpin, while Robin Sharma reminded us that there has never been a better time or opportunity than now to be The Leader Who Had No Title.
Which brings us to here: Most of us know by now that personal success in business goes to those who contribute; those who use their jobs as platforms to do interesting and engaging things. We also know that the companies who best support and encourage this type of employee engagement are first to market, creating innovative and exciting products and services. We know that we should work in this way. The challenge is often how to work in this way.
Imagine my delight when I came across The New How by first time author Nilofer Merchant. The New How is a step by step guide for creating a culture that encourages and solicits input from all levels of an organization in the creation and planning of business strategy. The process – nicknamed “QuEST” (for Question, Envision, Select and Take) – can be applied to any business decision or challenge, drawing on the collective strengths of the right people within the organization, not just from the C-suites.
In our rapidly changing business environments, a team that can solicit advice and buy in from the entire organization in a structured and efficient manner is a team that wins.
Being a Co-creator
“Being a co-creator is a new way of characterizing yourself, one that lets you focus on the value you can create, independent of the formal role you have.”
The New How, page 46
Without explicitly saying so, Merchant obliterates conventional business hierarchy as it applies to business strategy. Top down direction (arguably) makes sense in a static world, where business needs are changing slowly, and strategy decisions are fairly straight forward. This is not our world. Companies succeed now when people closest to the situation make the decisions, under the influence of a uniform strategy that has been bought into on all levels of the organization.
As members of a larger organization, we need to make a fundamental shift in thinking about the role we play. Leaders need to stop dictating, and staff need to stop expecting (and then blindly following) a pre-made set of instructions. We ALL need to become co-creators. As co-creators we collectively design strategy, and then apply our unique strengths to following that strategy, independently solving the inevitable obstacles that will arise along the way. As co-creators we win, faster and more thoroughly than our competitors.
Advocate or Moderator? (Understand your Role)
“If you are interested in passionately advocating and building your set of proposed solutions, make sure someone else is facilitating and driving the process for everyone.”
The New How, page 144
Being a co-creator means considering our respective roles in a new light. We need to think about our actions, and plan how we can best use the resources at our disposal (including our past experiences and unique strengths) to accomplish a certain task. We need to be mature about our decisions as well. One point that rang particularly true from The New How was to consciously recognize our role in team discussions and decisions. When you find yourself in a meeting where the objective is to identify a potential solution to a problem, think about the role you wish to play. If you’re championing an idea, then share it. With passion. Argue the merits of your idea and make sure that it’s heard effectively. Understand that every discussion forum like this needs a moderator – someone to hear the ideas, weigh them, and determine the best course of action. The Hierarchical leader does not need to be the moderator and, in fact, shouldn’t be if they’re push a particular option out to the group.
If you’re the leader of a team, have the confidence to delegate the moderator role to someone else. Doing so will ensure the best ideas come out on top, not just the one that you have a personal bias towards.
If you’re a member of the team (and not the leader), look for opportunities to moderate. Support a “meritocracy” – an environment in which the best idea gets the attention it deserves, rather than simply supporting a concept based on who suggested it. Ideas trump people when it comes to successful business strategy.
“The Second Elephant is one that looks different from every perspective: an important but multifaceted issue that many people see, but each in a limited way.”
The New How, page 119
One of the major downfalls of “Top down strategy” – where executives create the plan and then push it out to the rest of the staff – is disagreement due to personal viewpoint and experience. Merchant uses the idea of blindfolding a group of people, having them touch various parts of an elephant and then reporting what they feel. The report from someone touching the tusk is going to appear to be wildly out to lunch compared to the person who’s touching the tail. It’s all an elephant, but depending on where you’re standing can dramatically impact your experience and perception.
When something doesn’t make sense to you, based on your experience, you need to speak up. Too many people remain quiet, shy to raise a question or objection for risk of appearing “dumb” or “uninformed”. Understand that no one knows exactly what it’s like to be in your role other than you. Teams benefit as a whole when all voices are heard and considered. Everyone wants to succeed and the best (and fastest) way to do that is to consider all viewpoints. Speak up.
The New How is one of the most comprehensive books we’ve tackled in the recent past. A literal reference guide to navigating the fast paced, individual-powered business landscape of the 21st century. Nilofer Merchant stands apart as a pioneer in the field of collaborative strategy and is a voice business leaders should choose to ignore at their own risk. Chock full of personal examples from Merchant’s employee and consulting experience with firms like Adobe, Apple Nokia and HP, The New How is a book I believe will continue to build credibility and support in the decades to come.
While we could have written 10 articles on the lessons from this book, I believe the core message is this: Never has the power of the individual so needed to be harnessed and leveraged in business. The companies, leaders and employees who understand that and – as importantly – act on it are the ones that will continue to thrive in the future. The New How is a must read for all forward thinking business leaders.