We all want to enable organizational velocity. We know that as we lead, we need to not only make right decisions ourselves but to help our teams make good decisions as well. But how often do we step in, make the decision, and then wonder why our team is not “engaged?”
Many a leader sees themselves in this story:
Lucas told me he wanted his team to step up and figure out how to tackle a huge growth opportunity for his business unit. But he observed himself offering more specific direction than was appropriate given the talent of the people reporting to him. Plus, he had the vague sense his people were somehow holding back.
Whenever I asked Lucas a question that challenged his basic point of view, I saw his eyes light up. “Wow. That’s a good idea,” he would say. Or, “Oh, I think that would work….” Questions that had specific and factual answers prompted Lucas to sit forward in his chair. He wasn’t terribly interested when I asked him questions like: “So what do you do to generate ideas from your people?” or “Does your team believe this growth is possible too?” At best, he would mutter something cordial or polite like, “Hmm. That’s probably worth looking into.”
Lucas’s natural strength as a gifted problem solver was somehow more compelling to him than his less-developed collaborative skills. This dynamic was holding Lucas back, as it does for many otherwise effective executives, and biasing him toward a smartest-guy-in-the-room approach to strategising and winning.
If you see yourself in this story, you’ve got company. This is more the norm than the exception, and the more complicated the business issue, the more likely people are to “go it alone.” The upshot is that leaders often figure out “the answer” solo or in small groups, then set direction and tell their teams to “execute.”
Here is what I later said to Lucas—something I wish I could say to all GMs, VPs, directors, and managers in similar situations:
The answer to today’s specific question is only that—part of the solution to today’s problem. Next week’s problem will require a different solution. And next month’s question will need yet another answer. Crowning yourself the Chief of Answers sets your team up to be the Tribe of Doing Things. You become the bottleneck restricting productivity, because you have to be involved in every decision.
The Chief of Answers shows up
Our past successes as individual contributors bias us. They reinforce our tacit worldview that, as the smartest person in the room, we can avoid the messy dynamics of group problem solving. All we need are access to credible data, great research, excellent analysis, and clever insights.
We often treat collaboration in the process of innovation or setting direction as the cherry on top of the cake, when in reality it is the yeast. It needs to be baked into the process for the organisation to rise. It is just as important as the what of “big idea” that so much of the current focus takes. Both the “what” and the “how” matters to create the rise.
The Chief of Answers model fails the organisation on multiple levels. Here are a few:
- Scalability. Having everything go through one leader (or a small set of leaders) limits growth. The number of different kinds of business challenges grows as the market speeds up. The Chief of Answers cannot know the multitude of issues as well as the people who are closer to the problem. The speed of changing issues, the trend of that rate of change, and the speed at which the organisation must react is crucial to competitiveness going forward.
- Ownership. When people understand why things are broken, why decisions are made the way they are, and so on, they ultimately own the thinking. This means they can own the outcome. Without this understanding, only a few people feel ownership for the success of the strategy; the rest are collecting paychecks.
- Retention. Our incoming workforce of millennials expects to play a big role in setting direction. This group of people with new ideas can choose which organisation to work with.
- Motivation. Sitting outside the room doesn’t motivate people. They want a seat at the table. When a Chief of Answers leads, the best people go to organisations where they can make a more meaningful impact.
The Chief of Answers model rests mostly on individual smarts. But we all know that setting direction requires more than an accumulation of facts, latest web 2.0 technologies, specific processes, formulas, and individual insights. It is about going beyond data, insights, and models. It’s about applying many different perspectives and challenging the status quo, making shifts inside the organisation and jointly steering it toward a new, compelling future. It’s how we get many people to understand, believe, co-create, and co-own the outcome of a strategy, thus turning a direction into reality. And that’s what really matters.
Nilofer Merchant, CEO, strategist and author, is a leading authority on creating business strategy to achieve success. She has honed her unique, collaborative approach to solving tough problems while working with and for companies like Adobe, Apple, Nokia, HP and others. Her book, The New How: Creating Business Solutions through Collaborative Strategy, is available for order now at Amazon.
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