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Hard Times Demand Teamwork – not individualism

Almost everyone I know who has taken on the responsibility of managing feels the weight of obligation deep in their bones — obligations to the owners of the enterprise, of course, and to customers — but for most, perhaps even more viscerally, obligations to the employees and families that depend on the company for their livelihood, and to the heritage of the organization that they’ve been given the privilege to steward.

As a result, there’s no big surprise that times of trouble prompt many leaders to feel that they have to call the shots, that they must make the key play. It’s probably human nature — or at least human nature for those who take on these roles.

In many companies today, executives are shouting, “Give me the ball!” Authority is being centralized; extra levels of sign-off are being added; and small teams of executives are closeting away in secret retreats to review options, while meetings that would bring the troops together are being canceled. Executive instinct drives tighter control: review your costs, tighten your approval criteria, pull key decisions and approvals up to higher levels, make sure everyone in the organization is as fully busy as possible, narrow the business scope.

These actions are understandable, but dangerously wrong. 

Significant research has shown that groups make better decisions than individuals, that there is wisdom in crowds. Rather than personally grabbing the ball during a downturn, leaders need to tap into the wisdom and, perhaps even more importantly, the energy of the entire organization.

During a downturn, a leader’s role is to do three things:

  1. Ask great questions. Challenge the organization to meet goals that are intriguing, complex and important. Don’t narrow the focus to the mundane or over-specify the way teams should approach their challenges. Articulate a compelling intent — something that, in the language of complexity theory, will serve as a “strange attractor.”
  2. Build relationships and trust deep in the organization. Don’t cut out meetings, intensify the competition among internal teams, or reduce investments in learning. Increase your firm’s “collaborative capacity” by building relationships and encouraging knowledge exchange.
  3.  Challenge the status quo. Insure that your team has regular ongoing exposure to disruptive insights through diversity and external forays. Don’t cut travel or fall back on the old “tried and true” team. Bring in new people and new ideas – and take them seriously. Get outside your business sphere. Encourage brainstorming and the use of scenario analysis. Don’t cut training – invest in your people.

In a downturn, rather than trying to tighten control and hunker down, find ways to help your organization become more spontaneous, innovative and reflexive.

Pass the ball.

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