About a week ago, I blogged a short story about a fictional town that faced a problem, with two competing solutions. There are many observations about life in corporate IT that I included in that story: how different people can end up competing when they should be working together, how ideas can get in the way of cooperation, and how leadership can change the landscape.
The most important thing I’d like readers to gather from that story is this: sometimes success is not what you think it will be. Success is often a compromise, needed to create a solution that all of the stakeholders can accept. The reality is that there are often many solutions to a problem. Each will have pros and cons, costs and benefits. Each problem with have forces that play across it, and people who care passionately about solving it.
Success may not be the “perfect” solution, or even the one that has the best cost-benefit ratio. Success may be the one that removes the most obstacles to implementation. If the people who care passionately about one idea become an obstacle to another idea, then forward progress may simple stop. Problems are not solved by infighting. Half-measures rarely produce full results (as the parable demonstrates).
In that case, success may mean “choose a compromise path that is neither idea, but fuses the best of both.” I’ve seen this problem many times, and regrettably, I’ve seen it repeated. Dueling ideas or visions or roadmaps… and nothing moves.
Leaders must be careful. There is a tight-rope to walk. Leadership at the wrong time can stymie innovation. Leadership at the right time can lay the course for success. The most important thing that a leader can do is to resist the temptation to pick the winner. They should hold their people directly accountable (“run ‘em out of town”) if they cannot compromise, give them a deadline, and step back. If things don’t work, follow through. Roll heads. The next leaders to step up will quickly compromise.
Taking a side, on the other hand, cuts off the stakeholders at the knees. It sows dissention and creates an environment where people will agree “on paper” but continue to disagree in practice. This reaction, predictable as it is, is passive-aggressive at best and serves only to defeat the long-term goals of reaching a solution that everyone buys into. Leaders who make decisions that foster a passive-aggressive response are not well advised on their own organizational culture. If EA is to be a trusted advisor, we need to advise leaders to take actions that their own organization will swallow.
EA’s take heed. Learn the moral of “the little town of Busit.” Advise your leaders to behave like the mayor of Busit. Encourage them to allow stakeholders to create an accountable compromise solution that serves all, even if the solution doesn’t look like the one that you, or the leader, expect it to. Trusted advisors must earn trust. Earn it by helping your leader to lead.