The New How, A Book Review

Nilofer Merchant’s The New How: Creating Business Solutions through Collaborative Strategy is a great book for those that truly want to collaborate but also need a framework for collaboration along with some practical advice on how to actually get down to the business of collaboration. A veteran of strategic thinking and innovation in the business context, Nilofer goes beyond simple academic frameworks and packs each chapter with examples and real-life situations that illustrate her points.

Furthermore, while the book does introduce some new terminology that, for the most part, is unnecessary, it’s pretty much limited to:

  • The New How
    which is Nilofer’s way of saying that siloed businesses can no longer survive and that they have to embrace more collaborative ways of working together,
  • The Air Sandwich
    which is Nilofer’s way of referring to the void that exists between the executive suite and the trenches in an average large organization, filled by middle management who are supposed to be bridging the gap but who, usually, only widen it with their inability to truly understand both the corporate strategy and shop floor details that they are not part of on a daily basis,
  • Murderboarding
    which is Nilofer’s process of using a razor-sharp tool to slice away at fuzzy thinking and kill off good ideas to let the great ideas thrive, and
  • Chief of Answers
    which is Nilofer’s characterization of the current, doomed, organizational model where one person is responsible for driving all strategy.

Furthermore, while most of the book is focussed on Nilofer’s QuEST (Question, Envision, Select, and Take ownership) process for the collaborative creation of strategy, Nilofer also realizes that collaboration requires more than just a process. Thus, the first part of the book spends a couple of chapters on how to “be” a collaborator — which requires us, at a minimum, to listen and understand, and the last part of the book focusses on the bigger picture and provides us with the “glue” necessary to mesh the people with the process in a way that can produce real results.

But what makes the book great is that even if you tossed the framework, every chapter is filled with practical, down-to-earth advice, on how to become a true collaborator and real-world examples of not only how to apply the concepts, but what might happen if you don’t. For example, Nilofer starts the book by describing one of her own experiences where she was in charge of revenues for the Americas in a large multi-national software company. She described how, one day, the VP dropped by to explain how the company had decided to diversify their product line six-fold within the coming eighteen months — with no input at all from the trenches or even (senior) middle management — based solely on the results of a market exploration which convinced senior management it was “the right idea”. Somehow, sales and marketing would generate demand while new products were developed in parallel. The CEO said “We Must”, the (senior) VPs said “We Will”, and everyone charged forward on the vision, and edict, handed down from on high.

The results were, as we would now expect, predictable. A few months into the new revenue cycle, Nilofer received a call from the lead product manager for the new suite. It started off with “We have a problem here. You know the lead product? Yeah, the one that’s supposed to net us most of this year’s revenue? We’re not going to be able to ship it with all the features we originally planned.” Meetings and chaos resulted, with the typical end-result where the product was shipped on the planned release date, knowing full well it wouldn’t live up to the expectations marketing had created. And it didn’t sell well. Revenues were weak. Customers that bought were unhappy. The team was demoralized and the corporate culture took a nosedive. Several talented staff members resigned. And it took a while for the company to recover.

And it was all preventable. Had the strategy not been created in a vacuum in the senior executive suite, but collaboratively with the front-lines who could have provided feedback on what could be done, and when, chances are that a simpler vision could have been successfully delivered to greater profits than the unmaintainable grand vision that was decided on the simple basis of a market-study with no cross-company input.

After all, as Nilofer points out in the Introduction, there’s not much difference between strategy success and strategy failure. The formula for both is summarized as:
good intent + good idea + talented direction + hard work + "magic black box".

The difference is that in a successful strategy, the “magic black box”, or the details of a successful execution are worked out before the strategy is adopted and launched. Strategy fails when the keys to making a strategy operational cross-functionally are not uncovered soon enough. This happens when a company jumps from “grand vision” to “execution” without sufficient exploration and planning, not because the idea is bad, or the direction is off, or the people aren’t talented and hard-working enough. And that’s why Nilofer wrote the book, to try and help people understand how to replace the “magic black box” with a “successful execution strategy” so that you can be a winner every time. (Because winning today is not enough, you have to win tomorrow, and smart companies go for a series of smaller wins rather than betting the farm on one big win.)

And while I’m not going to get into the nitty gritty details and give it all away, since this is another book I believe you should carefully read cover-to-cover (I did), I am going to give you some examples of the practical, down-to-earth advice that the book is crammed with.

  • Even bright, talented, and motivated people cannot jointly create effective strategies until the fundamental enablers of collaboration are in place.
    Some people have to be guided, and, more importantly, the organization has to foster a culture of collaboration. If the corporate culture is “I own my domain, you own yours” and every manager is always trying to one-up the manager down the hall for greater recognition from the CEO, collaboration is not going to happen.
  • Setting direction is an art and a practice.
    Just like strategy is a noun and a verb. You have to have a vision not only of a goal, but of a realistic execution strategy to get to the goal.
  • The hallmark of thorny strategy problems is that they involve contradiction – that is, they contain a set of conflicting goals or imperatives that create a tension that defies objective resolution.
    And there’s rarely just one right answer. To find the answer, you’ll have to take on tough debates, uncover tacit issues, and work with your “foes” to developer a deeper understanding of the issue that will allow everyone to collectively reach a solution that everyone can live with, get behind, and execute on. Furthermore, by acknowledging and addressing those tensions as we develop ideas rather than smoothing things over, we’ll end up with an even stronger, more viable set of options. It’s one of those pay-me-now or pay-me-later choices.
  • It often happens that our Achilles heel as leaders is attempting to come up with the answers and solve the tough problems by ourselves.
    Even a genius doesn’t know everything, and a true genius admits it.
  • In the long run, what truly matters is not what each of us knows today, but out ability to continue expanding the aperture of what each of us can see and understand tomorrow.
    That’s pretty much the reason Sourcing Innovation exists!
  • Powerpoint slides are just another form of air in the sandwich.
    Powerpoint slides capture high-level ideas, not understanding. For a corporate strategy to be successfully executed, everyone in the organization has to understand it, not just 1 in 20 individuals (which is the number of individuals who understand corporate strategy in your typical organization today). You don’t want to be in the situation where you were looking for a strategy, but only found a PowerPoint.

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