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Are You Playing to Win the Game?
You have to "Get to Yes"
The Digital Leader Newsletter — Strategies and Techniques for Change Agents, Strategists, and Innovators.
Winning should be at the heart of every strategy. — A.G. Lafley & Roger L. Martin
Having had a tremendous offsite planning workshop outlining a future of new products, services, features, and market expansion, leadership leaves enthused and ready to get to work. They are all signed up and committed. “We are going to get so much done!”
They return to communicate with their organization and cascade the objectives and dependencies across the organization. Despite the economic headwinds and the typical “run the business” commitments, leadership is confident in its ability to iterate and progress on new concepts.
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I’m guessing you are grimacing as you know what’s just around the corner. Complications, blockers, dependencies, policies, and all the various forms of “no.” Although managers might present a posture with a sense of urgency, there are many accessible excuses, like brick walls, for the organization to hide behind. Managers can still say, “we are doing everything we can to support,” but in reality, they are working on their agenda and avoiding the hardest topic — getting to “yes.”
There is a moment when leadership needs to ask this question.
—>Are we playing to win the game?
THE UNCOMFORTABLE TRUTH
Most organizations are unwilling to exercise all the tools at their disposal to drive the strategy and “new” changes needed to test, refine and then scale the initiatives falling outside their ordinary course of business, processes, organization structure, incentives, or capabilities. If they played to win, laser focus and faster resolution would occur. They would have a leadership mantra of “Get to Yes.”
GET TO YES: Finance, Tax, Legal, Technology, and HR Teams That Matter
Within most traditional organizations, a topic or project, or function is “owned” by a core business team. In this model, the core group receives support from functional units such as IT (technology), finance, legal, and human resources.
These support teams are often considered experts only in their specific discipline. Naturally, these functions come to see themselves the way they are seen, and they decline to contribute much beyond the constraints of their job description.
When a new project comes from the strategy, these teams typically have their defined intake processes, roadmaps, plans, policies, and tempo in doing business. These processes move at one speed. SLOW.
How many times has negotiating within your own company felt like the most daunting part of a project? Not the customer, not partners, but your own “partners.”
At my previous consulting firm, many of my colleagues referred to our legal team as the “deal avoidance team.” While managing legal risk is part of the job, the safest action is no action. As a result, “no” was the legal team’s default answer to any contract terms that were not the default legal terms.
This is a type of local function optimization, while enterprise optimization is compromised.
THERE IS NO “NO”
Here’s a story that a former Amazon colleague told me.
When Amanda joined Amazon, she was an international logistics and compliance expert with more than 15 years of experience at leading freight forward companies. Because of this expertise, Amazon tapped her to dramatically expand Amazon’s cross-border business for customers and third-party sellers. At the time, Amanda saw customs and compliance as a transactional system of prescribed procedures and regulations. However, in her new role as Amazon’s director of global supply chain and compliance, these processes and procedures were expected to scale. Radically. The model she brought to Amazon was suddenly far too slow and unwieldy.
“It was disorienting. I spent the first few months saying, ‘No, that’s not possible” a lot. I was frustrated when I first joined, and no one listened to my decisions. My mentor sat me down and informed me that there is no ‘No’ at Amazon. If I was going to be successful, I had to figure out solutions, no matter how complicated—and I needed to do it quickly.”
Her mentor told Amanda that if she was going to innovate, she had to be able to present options, choices, trade-offs, and opportunities. The bottom line is that, at Amazon, no one defers responsibility. Everyone works to get to yes. Amazon requires the mindset that “we” must get to yes. All of us. It’s everyone’s job to get to yes. It was her job just as it was the job of HR or legal or finance. Everyone has the same ownership and accountability about getting to “yes” as the core business team.
REFRAME THE ISSUE
How do you get your team to “yes”? Finding solutions isn’t always the obstacle. Frequently, it is in truly understanding the situation, problem, or requirements. Is the issue, “Why did this fail?” or “How do we design something allowing a component to fail?” Is the right question, “How do we avoid this risk?” or “How do we accept and mitigate this risk?” These slight tweaks in the problem statement make all the difference in how you find solutions. What steps do you take to get to yes more effectively? Here are some suggestions:
1. Reframe the issue, and ask more questions about the situation and objectives.
2. Dive deep into the fundamental root-cause factors versus symptoms. Ask the five whys.
3. Outline and challenge your assumptions in a very deliberate way.
4. Articulate and quantify the real risks. Often the perceived risks can be mitigated, making the hurdle a minimal factor.
5. Bring in external, unbiased, cross-domain expertise to complement the expert mindset in the room.
6. Create a contest or hackathon for developing alternatives and solutions.
There are many obstacles to creating a “yes” culture. First and foremost, it requires direct and honest communication within an organization and viewing yourself as a co-owner of the business result. You have to get to yes.
And if you are still not getting the enterprise optimization, alignment, “get to yes” problem-solving ethos, you need to make changes to the team. And do them fast. In many studies of CEOs and senior leadership reflecting on what they wish they could change, a common reflection is that they wished they had made changes to the team quicker.
I knew in my gut that was not going to work with that individual, and I wish I had trusted that gut feeling and made that decision faster.
Making changes to the team is a regrettable but necessary part of leading high-performing teams. Trust your instincts.
PLAY TO WIN THE GAME
It may seem early in 2023, but if strategy, growth, and innovation progress is going to be made, faster decision-making and problem-solving are needed, or you will be in essentially the same position in 2024.
You must decide if you are really “playing to win” or just “playing to look like you want to win.”
Such a slight difference in words, but all the difference in results
About The Digital Leader Newsletter
This is a newsletter for change agents, strategists, and innovators. The Digital Leader Newsletter is a weekly coaching session focusing on customer-centricity, innovation, and strategy. We deliver practical theory, examples, tools, and techniques to help you build better strategies, better plans, better solutions — but most of all, to think and communicate better.
John Rossman is a keynote speaker and advisor on leadership and innovation. Learn more at https://johnrossman.com.