Back in the Saddle

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I have been quiet with the posting lately. As can happen with anyone or anything, other priorities overwhelmed. Working on some new material that will be posted soon!

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On my Team: the Old Guard

helmet-978558_1280When you hear the term “Old Guard” what do you think of?  As I have been writing this series, I am reminded of how labels carry both positive and negative connotations, but it seems often the negative ones are those that come to mind first.

It can be tempting, when what you want is innovative, creative strategies for pushing your business forward, to forget or even dismiss the Old Guard. These folks have been with the company through thick and thin and seem like they will remain forever, regardless of where the company goes.  As a result, they may not have an experiential understanding of what might be possible. They might even have animosity to change on general principle. What you need are the movers and shakers, right? Right?

Well, yes, but you also need the steadiness of this person who has stuck around. You need their knowledge of the organization back when no one else in the room worked here. You need their stories of events long past. Even stale biases and political grudges can be of use to the strategic planning team, as long as the team is not allowed to bog down in them. The business would not exist without the Old Guard and there’s more than one in your organization, so representation at the table is critical.

A few years ago, I had the delight of welcoming a new executive into the organization I was at and I had helped him plan the meeting where he would be introduced to his new team. When he got up in front, he proceeded to tell this story of how he had outsourced a particular function and it helped both the team and the bottom line dramatically. It’s a great story exhibiting his courage to make changes and his willingness to listen to his team. Here’s the problem: we had been through outsourcing that exact same department at our organization only 2 years prior and it was an unmitigated disaster. We brought the team back and they spent the next year cleaning up the mess. Looking around the room, I could see that our new executive had all but lost his audience. If I or someone else on the team had taken some time to give him some history of the group, he might have used a different story, a story which would have had the intended impact.

In every strategy meeting someone inevitably says, “I did X at my other company, let’s try it here.” X might be the best idea since sliced bread, but if X here would present organization specific stumbling blocks, you need the Old Guard to point them out before you run headlong into an epic face-plant.

The “Yes Man”: every team needs one

thumb-up-441938The person who always gives an unqualified yes can be irritating and easy to hate for their peers, dangerous for their leaders and aggravating for their subordinates. If you couldn’t tell from that summary, they’re not my favorite archetype. This may be because my tendency to say exactly what I think, regardless of the consequences, makes myself and the Yes Person like oil and water.

I have faced an executive leader and laughed so hard at his idea that I nearly fell out of my chair. In retrospect, that was probably not the wisest move, but he found it “refreshing,” so I was forgiven. In contrast, the stereotypical Yes Person in the same situation would nod, agree and find a way to make it happen, even if the idea was laughably inappropriate for the organization.

Over time, I have learned that while I do not want a team full of this type, the Yes Person serves an important role in any organization. They have the ability to say “Yes.” It may not be the best strategic decision in the history of humanity, but gosh darn it, we’re going to make it happen. And that will to make it happen, the unwavering belief that impossible is unacceptable, makes the Yes Person a vital part of a well-balanced team.

Who’s on my team?

When preparing to do strategic visioning work, assembling the right team for the job is vital. If groupthink is the arrow that killed creative problem solving, then a homogenous team is the achilles heel of your project.

In my ideal strategy team, you would find a variety of archetypes.  Here are some of the types of people I consider vital:

  • the Executive Sponsor as the team’s champion and air coverage
  • the Academic providing deep knowledge of relevant practice and theory
  • the “Yes Man” who is certain we can make it happen, regardless of constraints
  • the Naysayer reminding us all of the elephant in the room, throwing a wrench in the machine, and all the many ways why this won’t work
  • the Dreamer with head in the clouds and giving us lofty, beautiful, utterly impractical ideas.
  • the Realist pointing out that words are pretty, but here on planet earth, there’s this thing called gravity.
  • the Innovator standing so close to the edge that it bleeds
  • the Traditionalist steadfastly insisting that this is how it is done, how it has always been done
  • the Analyst demanding to see the numbers
  • the Old Guard with the institutional history to keep everything in context and navigate the political landscape
  • the Fresh Meat, someone newer to the organization, unbiased by internal history and politics
  • the High Potential for whom this is a stretch assignment
  • the Facilitation Team with one partner to facilitate and one to observe

Each of these types has their strengths and weaknesses, but when you bring them together, with mutually agreed upon expectations about behaviour, amazing things happen.

What types of people do you look for when building a strategic team?