Issue 3.4 | January 2012

In this Article: how a misguided sense of urgency undermines value creation.

by Jonathan Wilson 

If patience is a virtue, the world of business, which has exchanged fear of God for fear of Darwin, has forgotten it.  When people come together to do business the emphasis is on do: a call to “action!”  When we start meetings – that most despised yet universal method for achieving great things – we typically begin business with a set of questions: “What shall we do? How shall we do it?”  We are champing at the bits, for the race is on.  For all we know, our competitors are out of the gate.

These questions are indeed crucial.  They are the precursor to making a better product or service, perhaps even a better world.  In the last issue of Leadership by Soul, I argued that it is ultimately action, not thought, that defines leadership.  But action that is driven primarily by a survival instinct is exactly where Darwin, who lives forever in Capitalism if not on Earth, does a disservice to humanity (or, it could be argued, the damage comes from how we read him).  For the survival instinct, rooted as it is in fear, kills the virtue of patience and pressures us to pass over other equally significant questions that are equally crucial to doing business well.

The problem begins when we emphasize a good word at the wrong time: “do”.  How do we answer the questions “what shall we do?” and “how shall we do it?” if we have not adequately determined who “we” is?  And by we, I mean anyone in the (ideally collaborative) network that makes up your business model – from colleagues, to suppliers, to customers, to venture partners.

Who is We?

To find out who “we” is requires answering two prior sets of questions that are simple, but often overlooked.

The first set of questions is “Who am I?” and “Why am I here?”  It is going to be difficult to contribute effectively to a team or collaboration if I don’t know what I bring to the table, what I believe is important and what return on investment I desire from this endeavour.  Again, these are not just questions for colleagues on a team.  They must be answered, consciously or unconsciously, by everyone who plays a role in your business model.

The second set of questions is “Who are you?” and “Why are you here?”  When we start to understand the stakeholders within our business network — their skills, their desired outcomes, their context — a great deal of potential misunderstanding falls away, and trust begins to form.  When we buy into who they are and why they are in the mix, we will willingly communicate, share resources and cooperate closely with them.

Thus a conversation for understanding has to precede a conversation for action.  This has impacts on every level of business.

A supplier jealously guards against granting exclusive rights to their product, much to the frustration of a very powerful but unsuccessful buyer.  A conversation for understanding is eventually conducted.  It reveals that the supplier is simply protecting one relative who likes to have access to that product.  The problem is quickly solved.

A CEO is seen as a pit-bull by her team, until they take time to develop mutual understanding, at which point she recognizes the effect of her actions and they realize she hasn’t been directing her aggression at them as people. It’s ambiguity she hates.  Lack of information drives her crazy.  Both adjust their assumptions and behaviours accordingly, much to the benefit of their productivity and effectiveness.

Waste, the Cost of Haste

In contrast, an accountant working in a bureaucratic services company constantly steps on hidden mines, laid mostly unconsciously by inept managers who neglect to hold conversations for understanding – or who do hold them, but in a rush.  As a result, team members assume the worst of each other, often inaccurately, and fiercely guard their own little bit of knowledge and influence.  Darwin is in the house.

When we fail to effectively answer these two sets of questions about “we”, the best way to describe the impact is in terms of waste:

  1. We waste emotional and physical energy as conflicts arise around the objectives of our collaboration.
  2. We waste knowledge and learning.  We withhold crucial knowledge because we fear its misuse.  This kills learning and the development of finely calibrated and high-powered solutions.
  3. We waste time as we and our partners resist one another, introducing delays, and resulting in missed deadlines and most of all, missed opportunities.
  4. We waste money: our financials will show a shrivelled bottom line caused by the inefficiencies introduced by delay-tactics and stall-tactics, inter-party frictions, and reluctance to cooperate or share.
  5. We waste more money: creating a top-line shaped by missed opportunities – the failure to synergistically develop higher quality solutions to which customers would migrate.

Creating Value – by People, for People

Business is value creation.  And value creation happens by people, for people – the “we” behind every “do.”  .  If we build trust before (and while) we attempt to figure out what to do, we position ourselves for powerful, integrative solutions.  To achieve action that is powerful, we must build trust that is substantial.

Now the stage is set for developing synergy.  A conversation for action is possible now that we have had a conversation for understanding, and we can move to the final, and crucial, set of questions: “What shall we do?” and  “How shall we do it?”

When stakeholders know and buy into each other, they can jointly leverage their expertise, insights and shared vision to accomplish something more significant than they could achieve independently of each other.  They will enjoy, then, the fruits of synergy.  One of those fruits is the very thing we feel so pressured about: making money.

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