We had an amazing product change: it was truly lightning in a bottle. The group I was leading had discovered an unserved need through some deep customer problem solving that we had been called in to help with. We had enough discretionary time to get the basic work done and to do some limited proof of concept, but to scale I was going to have to go into the lion’s den. Our manufacturing leader was known to be a very hard sell. She built her group on data and compliance, and everyone knew better than to deviate from the approved plans to try something new.
I knew that if I was to handle the situation with full integrity, I would need to go straight to her. Plus, if I went up and through the chain of command, we’d lose momentum and the window to launch. Trying to tunnel around her would have also been perceived as a go around – and rightly so.
What I needed was to form a coalition.
I was experienced enough to know that even though we knew how to alter the product to serve this customer, there is a big difference between completing a handful in a controlled environment and releasing a new solution to full production. While I knew many of the questions, the answers needed to be worked out cooperatively.
The truth, is that the processes we build to serve our market’s “core” are hopelessly outmatched in today’s fast-paced and disruptive environment. By forming cross-functional teams to address these emergent “edges,” we can use the strength of our assets to open new categories – quickly. What we are moving toward is pulling us into a new paradigm of rapid adaptation where the roles of senior leaders and functional leadership are being transformed.
Creating a New Map
Many of us have spent much of our careers trying to get promoted to bigger and more expansive responsibilities, yet every org chart I’ve ever seen has only one set of relationships on it: vertical. This chart shows who reports to who, the layers of the organization, and whether there are too many subject matter experts with no direct reports (and so on). This creates the classic, functional silos that are core to many firms currently in the S&P.
If we’re going to allow decision-making authority to flow through the firm, however, we need to stop thinking vertically.
The challenge of the new era, when the most important intelligence is at the edges of the firm, is to build organizations where information and innovation flow not vertically, but horizontally.
To make this happen, we need the roles of our senior leaders to change, so that they’re building, refining and improving these linkages to provide resources, establish rules of engagement, and drive up empowerment. Empowerment can feel very uncomfortable at the outset, as it seems like they are ceding large amounts of power to allow the team to take action. To do this effectively, the empowered leader needs to have the experience and training to know the full impact of their decision making. You can help them build the muscle to see blind spots by giving careful mentorship as you give more autonomy.
To get this informational power unlocked and flowing through an organization laterally is one of the biggest challenges facing firms today. In future articles, we’ll talk about the impact of this on boards, the C-Suite and functional leaders.
For this article, let’s talk about the implications for the embedded and emergent growth leader.
So Back to my Dilemma
It’s relatively straightforward to describe what needs to be done in concept, but a whole lot harder to find the courage, as an up-and-coming leader, to do it in real time. The reason that operations leaders are given stewardship of high-value production assets, is that they will maintain a very high bar of asset utilization, and that means when you enter their zone with anything that smells like a prototype, it’s not going anywhere.
So how do you build the influence platform to develop that horizontal trust and linkage that our firms demand? While there is much research I’ve been pouring through that is included in my workshops, I’m going to start with one simple and powerful strategy for today.
The Three C’s
Getting started on your influence skills is best done with study, coaching and practice. Each leader is different, and an assessment of your core leadership profile and inclination is a great place to begin. Once you have your baselines, this rubric will give you a nice start.
When you approach a peer leader who has a different leadership style with a significant “ask,” the work lies in taking a “walk in their shoes.” First, you must have a high base level of credibility in your functional background. You can gain this in a variety of ways: your reputation might proceed you, or you could ask for an introduction from a credible sponsor in your specialty. You might need to have a consultant who is known in the area review your insight and applications, or perhaps bring a peer-reviewed paper. In the example case of the new product above, we had done some careful work with field staff using limited pilots that provided that first step of credible evidence.
There needs to be some platform of shared benefit for you to call on during your discussion. If it’s happening within the firm, not uncommonly you can build your discussion on shared financial benefits to get things started. As this discussion continues, you can begin to see if there are shared goals regarding growth or innovation metrics. Finally, it often takes some level of emotional connection to provide enough of a trust bond to get the deal struck. In this case, I had consulted one of her go to’s and found out that we had a shared interest in seeing her team recognized as progressive and agile. I knew if this took hold, the P&L boost would seal the deal.
You need to have some strong evidence that what you are asking for will create a positive outcome. Chances are that your process-oriented peer will have what appears to be a never-ending stream of questions and concerns. Don’t be dissuaded, they are doing you a huge favor. You are asking to play in the big leagues and frankly production assets can create enormous amounts of both good and bad outcomes, and early on the only firewall you have is a very skeptical partner. In my case, we had the sales VP and marketing VP backing up the value proposition – as well as real client feedback that it worked.
In the end, I was able to strike a deal with my operations leader, and this project led to a great working relationship that led to many growth programs.
The work of releasing cross-functional energy in your firm is not a one-time event, but a journey of growth for individuals, leaders and senior staff. The first steps we’ve discussed today are very much the base camp portion of the journey. I’d encourage you to start a dialogue with your operations colleagues to start building those paths.
I would be happy to continue the conversation about how to form these incredibly valuable, horizontal innovation value chains in your firm. To get started on that journey, please give me a call at 847-651-1014 or use this link to set up a 20-minute (no strings attached) consult.