About a decade ago, two major global corporations decided to launch major strategic initiatives. Both had the strong support of the CEO and executives. Both invested massively in training. But Company A’s initiative has dwindled to irrelevance while Company B’s effort is still going strong, having become an essential part of its company’s ongoing success. What made the difference?
We’ll call Company A’s program the “Solaris Initiative.” The new CEO was convinced that Solaris was a critical element in the company’s strategy. He strongly supported the initiative and, employing a collaborative approach, gained the full support of senior and mid-level executives. The initiative was successfully launched with a lot of fanfare, and a massive training effort began.
A very seasoned senior VP who had been with Company A for years—we’ll call him Adam—was put in charge of Solaris, even though he had no experience with anything like Solaris in his past. Every manager with direct Solaris responsibilities reported to Adam, who then reported to the CEO.
Everyone agreed that Adam was an all around good guy. People liked him. But he was one of those managers who is very uncomfortable with the human side of business. He didn’t see much value in collaboration, and preferred keeping power and knowledge to himself. As a result, the Solaris leadership meetings were perfunctory, with each manager simply reporting out what was happening in his or her area. There was little discussion, sharing of lessons learned, or collaborative problem solving.
Further, Adam’s direct reports went through training to that was focused on helping them develop their skills in interaction (collaboration, teamwork, decision making, etc.). Adam decided not to participate. His resistance to working collaboratively just deepened the rift between Adam and his direct reports.
The Solaris Initiative managed to provide the business results the company was looking for, at least at first. But eventually support waned and everything began to deteriorate. For a while, Adam’s direct reports held meetings on the side (without him) so they could talk through common challenges and develop recommendations to bring to Adam. But it became too difficult to carry on with this workaround, and they eventually gave it up.
The problems with the Solaris Initiative didn’t stop there:
- Adam approved the purchase of various computer support systems that he thought would facilitate the use of Solaris processes in the company. But he didn’t consult with others or consider the user friendliness of the systems. They are still in place today, but they are more of a drag on Solaris than a help. Still, since they represent a significant cost in both time and money, management is hesitant to scrap the investment and get a better solution.
- Adam did such a good job of implementing a hub-and-spoke system that the various spokes soon lost track of what each other was doing—and not long into the effort, there was a massive duplication of Solaris effort among various fiefdoms.
Not surprisingly, the Solaris Initiative in this company is now struggling. Where once the CEO held biweekly meetings with Adam, there is very little executive interest any more and the effort has become completely marginalized.
Adam is a prime example of the huge impact that failure in what we call the interaction dimension can have when it happens at the senior levels. He had all the technical knowledge he needed, but he was willfully ignorant around the people side of the equation. He “didn’t do touchy feely”; he established a norm of non-collaboration; he did not look for and therefore could not utilize the “people talents” of his direct reports. And worst of all, he failed to recognize the negative impact that his own behavior had on the people around him and the effectiveness of the Solaris Initiative.
When anyone asks us why paying attention to interaction is important, we use Adam’s failure as an example of a worst-case scenario. His company had a clear strategy and the support of the CEO, knew the mechanics around managing projects… but ended up squandering a huge investment in terms of time, dollars, and talents because it failed to pay attention to interaction.
What happens when you do master the interaction dimension of business success? Company B provides the answer. It was implementing something similar to Solaris. From a technical standpoint, Company B did everything the Solaris company did: they appointed a senior executive to oversee the effort, established a network of project leaders and teams, and implemented a widespread training program to provide new technical skills.
But in addition to the standard elements of any major deployment, they surrounded the effort with a layer of training and skill development that built both personal and organizational skills in interaction:
- They created the motivation for employees to want to see improved interaction.
- They showed people how important it was for them to be open to feedback about how they interact, and helped them identify their talents and weaknesses around interaction.
- They connected the groups that needed to work most effectively together for the initiative to succeed.
- They established new practices around checking for alignment frequently.
- The company became much more deliberate about facilitating improved interaction. Implementation plans included not just strategy and execution elements but also commitments and actions related to collaboration, teamwork, decision making, and so on.
Everyone who was in charge of any piece of Company B’s version of Solaris got trained in interaction, knew how to manage their own and their team’s strengths and weaknesses in relation to group effectiveness, and gained confidence in knowing when and how to deal with interaction issues.
As a result of establishing a better platform for interaction to support the execution of an important strategy, the Solaris effort in Company B started strong and is still flourishing years later because it continues to deliver significant business results.
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About the Author
Max is the CEO of Belbin North America. He brings a depth of knowledge and experience from his career in general management and consulting in North America, England, Europe and Asia. Max has assisted CEOs and senior leaders within client organizations with the design and implementation of Interaction Planning processes, team based organizational development programs and Lean Six Sigma initiatives.