“It’s not rocket science. It’s everyone being on the same page and doing it well.”
[Richie McCaw, current captain of the All Blacks (New Zealand’s national rugby team) commenting on his team's latest major challenge, 11 September 2010.]
A merger-in-progress of two large service groups is struggling to achieve its intentions. The distinctly different organisational cultures are not a natural mix; each has a long history of operating idiosyncratically in separate regions, serving distinctly different demographics with strong local loyalties and attachments, and of growing their own responses to unique local problems over many years. Their leadership and management practices appear to be entirely dissimilar. Poles apart, people say. Chalk and cheese. Oil and water.
What’s happening within this project has many lessons for everyday leadership, management and self-management practices. In short:
Well-honed, generic personal and group management operating systems can provide clarity where there is confusion, wisdom in the midst of disorder, and procedural certainty when we don’t know what to do.
Acquiring them should never become a matter of urgency. If you don’t routinely hone and habituate them, don’t expect to access them easily in difficult times when they’ll be vitally important and urgent.
When there is no reliable map, use your management operating systems as your compass. Check its alignment with others’ compasses.
The merger in question is a forced marriage; neither party has a natural inclination to join forces but they are required to bring about a wide range of services operating seamlessly over a large geographic span at a number of different sites. Senior managers are seriously alarmed by the level of challenge ahead. Some despair at the prospect and the lack of progress. Several key players predict an expensive and messily irresolvable impasse.
Much frustration centres on the difficulty of “. . . getting them [their counterparts in the other organisation] to understand what’s important and what’s required for this to work. They can’t keep doing it the way they’ve been used to, because that doesn’t and won’t work here.”
They are not even close to being on the same page. They’re reading and quoting from different books, written in languages incomprehensible to the other. And the difficulties are hugely magnified (in the order of trying to swim through molasses) when the required progress is attempted in discussions between and amongst groups rather than between individuals.
I don’t know if this merger should be attempted and whether or not it will succeed. [Though I have an opinion about it and forced mergers generally: see Reorganising and Squandering, my earlier blog.] However, I’ve observed by working closely with some of the key people, many of the usual suspects for organisational dysfunction. Attending to them would help the parties get closer to making headway, in the same book if not exactly on the same page. Here’s a discussion about three of those, the most obvious likely suspects:
1. People focus on tangible goals, tasks, implementation plans and other “practical” agenda while making untested, unsafe assumptions about basic processes (personal and group management operating systems, for example) for developing capacity and working together.
Assumptions are suppositions or premises incorporated into thinking and regarded as true. If made unawarely, reached without positive proof, or not tested with others presumed to also hold them, they may be entirely invalid and lead to misdirection, confusion, conflict, blocked progress, inappropriate conclusions, unwise plans and initiatives.[See Clarify and Test the Working Assumptions, in the Leadership or Teamwork sections of Thriving-Workplace.com.] Many unsafe assumptions are being made in this case.
I’ve asked leaders involved in this merger, Does your work on this project include solving problems, making decisions and plans, trying to form teams, resolve conflict and run constructive meetings? Yes, of course, they tell me, recognising that these processes are generic and fundamental to their merger initiatives and everyday work.
I’ve then asked, Have you determined for yourself, the models or conceptual frameworks and assumptions you make about these matters for your work on the merger project? Have you raised those assumptions for discussion with your counterparts with a view to reaching agreement on appropriate processes – or at least to acknowledging and working around the differences? The answer to these questions, universally and unfortunately, is No.
Of course, those who haven’t yet deliberately honed and habituated constructive operating systems of that kind in their day-to-day work will, of course, find it difficult or impossible to do so. Especially when those practices are most required – where differences are at their peak, tension and feelings are running high, and the consequences of misjudgement and failure are particularly serious. They can expect unnecessary complications and problems – although these can be significantly eased, by shifting focus. [See a discussion of meta-level leadership in Lead, Manage & Strengthen Your Leadership Practices, at the Leadership section of Thriving-Workplace.com.]
My questions are intended to help bring important unconscious assumptions to awareness. I remind my clients that not all those assumptions need be addressed at once; just those that are most basic, pertinent and pressing. Methodical Priority Management suggests they should always be within the Never Urgent, Always Important practices category. [See Manage Priorities, Not Time in the Self-Management section of Thriving-Workplace.com.]
Making unwise and unsafe foundational assumptions appears to be commonplace in every workplace at the start-up for example, of working-parties, project work, teamwork, meetings, planning and strategic planning, problem solving and change initiatives. As with house-painting, careful preparation is often tedious but everything applied to a poorly-prepared foundation is wasted effort.
2. Managers and leaders often have perfect hearing, but their listening is seriously impaired. In their interpersonal and relationship management practices, they tend to present, describe, explain, advocate for, justify or defend positions, rather than listen to one another to hear and understand differing perspectives – especially to resistance, concerns and anxiety about change. They tend to push predetermined solutions, or to solve problems by arguing about solutions, rather than hear and explore challenges, issues and their causes. People on the receiving-end often become more solid in their opposition to what is proposed. Opportunities to build trust, respect and understanding are lost.
When I know that whatever I say and however I say it, you will honour, explore, ask questions to elicit details, and reflect and demonstrate your understanding of my intentions until you have it right – you clarify, develop and illuminate my thinking and you gain my trust.
When you engage in discussions about problems with high-quality listening and within a methodical problem solving framework, you facilitate (ease) the process. Solutions arrived at this way are likely to deal with root causes, endure, and not cause further problems.
That high-quality active listening and good-sense problem-solving processes are far from routine in interpersonal and group relationships, ought to be plain to anyone capable of paying attention to process as they also engage in workplace tasks and agenda. Trouble is, few make the effort to bring these practices to awareness and many are unconsciously incompetent in their application. I am often shocked by how unaware are managers and leaders of their skill levels in this regard. Possibilities for real colleagueship can be vastly enhanced by a determination to change this. Enhancing these skills is simple, though not necessarily easy. How well do you listen? How do you know?
3. There is no clear Big Picture or strategic direction to guide other plans, other than a loosely-stated broad intention. There is very little methodical planning, a great deal of improvisation and many unclarified assumptions made about the planning process.
It’s common for organisations, leaders, managers, groups and teams to behave as though planning is a matter of tossing ideas around, arguing about them under the misconception that they are ‘problem-solving”, “brainstorming” and “reaching consensus”, and then somehow prioritising them as a lightly-sketched list of actions. Although this sort of improvisation may succeed, its progress is frequently marked by the eventual need to revisit the issues from scratch or by having to undo things already done.
Things won’t go according to a plan you don’t have. [Don’t get me started! See the many discussions and guides on this topic in the Planning section of our subscriber library at Thriving-Workplace.com.]
Merger and restructuring initiatives as conventionally practised often involve trying to do the wrong thing (that is, business as usual without regard to the causes of systemic problems), better (that is, with reduced resources and fewer people). The people in these organisations who lack the ability to resist or influence the process will live through slow motion catastrophes. Those who can influence it, hold extraordinary potential for developing everyone’s capacity.