Harnessing Disagreement, from Mihnea Moldoveneau

Mind meldThis post is a part of our Think Piece series, in which we synthesize and share the most insightful concepts from our favorite books, articles & thought leaders. The following has been adapted from an interview with Mihnew Moldovenau, published in the Spring 2015 issue of Rotman, the Magazine of the Rotman School of Management in Toronto.

Decisions do not occur in the vacuum of one’s mind, but in the caldron of relationships. It is a process fraught with political and interpersonal conflict and tension, but which relies on collaboration and cooperation in spite of the emotional landscape on which it unfolds.

No single mind can behold the right solution at a glance, nor can any single mind even behold all the promising solutions.

As a result, disagreement needs to be harnessed rather than camouflaged in order to uncover all of the sources of value that each contributor brings to the table. The final requirement for solving complex problems in collaborative settings is a set of tools that turn disagreement into generative tension.

Mihnea Moldoveneau, Peter Pauly, Rotman School of Management, Rotman Magazine, Spring 2015

Conflict = Thinking, from Margaret Heffernan

At Converge, we think a lot about how networks and organizations can learn to generate productive tension, rather than shut down in the face of disagreement. When teams and groups master the ability to harness creative abrasion, the result is smarter strategies, better decisions, stronger relationships, and higher morale. In short, greater positive impact.

As Margaret Heffernan explains in this TED Global talk, good disagreement is central to progress. She illustrates how the best partners aren’t echo chambers — and how great research teams, relationships, and businesses allow people to deeply disagree.

Margaret HeffernanSo what does that kind of constructive conflict require? Well, first of all, it requires that we find people who are very different from ourselves. That means we have to resist the neurobiological drive, which means that we really prefer people mostly like ourselves, and it means we have to seek out people with different backgrounds, different disciplines, different ways of thinking and different experience, and find ways to engage with them. That requires a lot of patience and a lot of energy.

And the more I’ve thought about this, the more I think, really, that that’s a kind of love. Because you simply won’t commit that kind of energy and time if you don’t really care. And it also means that we have to be prepared to change our minds.

So it’s one thing to do that in a one-to-one relationship. But it strikes me that the biggest problems we face, many of the biggest disasters that we’ve experienced, mostly haven’t come from individuals, they’ve come from organizations, some of them bigger than countries, many of them capable of affecting hundreds, thousands, even millions of lives.

So how do organizations think? Well, for the most part, they don’t. And that isn’t because they don’t want to, it’s really because they can’t. And they can’t because the people inside of them are too afraid of conflict.

In surveys of European and American executives, fully 85 percent of them acknowledged that they had issues or concerns at work that they were afraid to raise. Afraid of the conflict that that would provoke, afraid to get embroiled in arguments that they did not know how to manage, and felt that they were bound to lose. Continue reading

Why Strategy Execution Unravels, from Sull, Homkes & Still

We think a lot about the relationship between strategy and execution at Converge, reflecting often on the famous quote attributed to Peter Drucker, “Culture eats strategy for lunch”. Execution is about culture and leadership. Poorly executed strategies are not just a shame – they waste precious human and financial resources, are tough on morale, and undercut long-term performance. This think piece from a recent article in Harvard Business Review talks about large companies – the authors surveyed 7600 managers in 262 companies across 30 industries – but the lessons are also valid in the social and public spheres, and in smaller organizations. I found this article to be the most useful thing I’ve ever read on the topic.

Taming-strategy-400x379A recent survey of more than 400 global leaders found that executional excellence was the number one challenge, heading a list of some 80 issues, including innovation, geopolitical instability, and top-line growth. Two-thirds to three-quarters of organizations struggle with execution. And it’s no wonder: Research reveals that several common beliefs about implementing strategy are just plain wrong. Here are five of the most pernicious myths:

Execution equals alignment

Whereas companies have effective processes for cascading goals downward in the organization, their systems for managing horizontal performance commitments lack teeth. When asked to identify the single greatest challenge to executing company strategy, 30% cite failure to coordinate across units. Managers also say they are three times more likely to miss performance commitments because of insufficient support from other units than because of their own teams’ failure to deliver. More than half of managers want more structure in the processes to coordinate activities across units – twice the number who want more structure in the management by objectives system. Processes to align activities with strategy up and down the hierarchy are generally sound. The real problem is coordination: People in other units can’t be counted on.

Execution means sticking to the plan

After investing enormous amounts of time and energy formulating a plan and its associated budget, executives view deviations as a lack of discipline that undercuts execution. Unfortunately, no strategy survives contact with reality. Managers and employees at every level need to adapt to facts on the ground, surmount unexpected obstacles, and take advantage of Continue reading

Building Shared Understanding of Wicked Problems, from Jeff Conklin

wicked problemsThis post is a part of our Think Piece series, in which we synthesize and share the most insightful concepts from our favorite books, articles & thought leaders. The following has been adapted from an interview with Jeff Conklin, Founder of CogNexus Institute, published in the Winter 2009 issue of Rotman, the Magazine of the Rotman School of Management in Toronto.

Discuss the relation between ‘problem understanding’ and ‘solution formulation’.

Today there is increasing awareness that a shared understanding of a given problem cannot be taken for granted, and that the absence of buy-in about a problem’s definition, scope and goals can kill a project just as surely as faulty implementation. Organizations are beginning to embrace the idea that these two aspects of projects – problem understanding and solution formulation–are not distinct phases, but rather different kinds of conversations that must be woven together from beginning to end.

Problem structuring is a critical aspect of the design process that takes into account the diversity of goals, assumptions and meanings among stakeholders. At the heart of this new understanding of organizational life is the recognition that project work is fundamentally social, and that communication among stakeholders must be managed and nurtured in order for the social network to cohere into a functioning entity.

Problem understanding is actually the more important and evasive part of the process. The social complexity aspect of it is that you have different stakeholders with strongly-held beliefs about what the problem is. Dealing with wicked problems is not simply a matter of coming up with the best answer; first it’s about engaging stakeholders in a robust and healthy process of making sense of the problem’s dimensions.

Any way you slice it, it entails heavy lifting, and you have to roll up your sleeves and have the hard conversations in order to expose where shared understanding is missing.

Quantum Problems, from Alpheus Bingham

Wicked Problems - colored gasAt Converge, we conceive of a quantum problem as a collection of wicked problems. Climate change is a mash up of all sorts of wicked problems, social environmental, even neurological. Naomi Klein’s new book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, explores these dynamics brilliantly.

We’re big fans of Rotman Magazine around here, and were very impressed by a recent interview with Dr. Alpheus Bingham, the founder of InnoCentive, about the power of open innovation in addressing wicked problems, challenges the military dubbed VUCA: volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous. Here’s what we learned.

“InnoCentive has embraced an approach called Challenge Driven Innovation. Please explain how it works.

Most of the problems we work on are ‘wicked problems’. Challenge Driven Innovation (CDI) essentially recognizes that big, complex problems are really collections of lots of little problems. Once a problem is broken down, each smaller problem gets written up as a semi-autonomous, stand alone challenge. At this point, each problem is ‘portable’ a module, and as solutions to the various modules are found, you assemble them as part of the solution to your bigger problem.

Talk a little bit about the importance of diversity of thought for solving wicked problems.

People start out with different assumptions so they ‘hop onto’ the rocky problem solving surface a different locations. Some of them might land near a ‘peak’, others in a ‘deep valley’, but they all begin navigating around the area they jumped in at. If you look at the results of that collective effort, each ‘hopper’ is actually mapping a different region of the landscape. We’ve done this 2000+ times, and we have found that by injecting diversity into the equation, we get to solutions that are not at all in line with the way things have been done before. Continue reading

6 Ways to Make Groups Smarter, from Sunstein & Hastie

This post is a part of our Think Piece series, in which we synthesize and share the most insightful concepts from our favorite books, articles & thought leaders. The following has been adapted from the writings of Cass Sunstein & Reid Hastie, Making Dumb Groups Smarter, Harvard Business Review, December 2014. 

The Problem

Groups often fail to live up to their potential as decision-making bodies. Instead of aggregating the knowledge and wisdom of their members, they end up making bigger errors than individuals would.

Why It Happens

Group members take informational signals from what others say, even when the information is wrong or misleading. Reputational pressures can cause them to silence themselves or change their views in order to fit in. As a result, groups often amplify errors, stampede towards bad decisions, foment polarization and extremism, and ignore information that isn’t widely held.

The Solution

Leaders can structure group deliberations to make them more likely to succeed. Continue reading

The Big Lie of Strategic Planning, from Roger Martin

This post is a part of our Think Piece series, in which we synthesize and share the most insightful concepts from our favorite books, articles & thought leaders. The following has been modified from the writings of Roger Martin, The Big Lie of Strategic Planning, Harvard Business Review, January 2014. 

“Customers and context are both unknowable and uncontrollable.”

In 1978 Henry Mintzberg published an influential article in Management Science that introduced emergent strategy, a concept he later popularized for the wider nonacademic business audience in his successful 1994 book, The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning. Mintzberg’s insight was simple but indeed powerful. He distinguished between deliberate strategy, which is intentional, and emergent strategy, which is not based on an original intention but instead consists of the company’s responses to a variety of unanticipated events.

Mintzberg’s thinking was informed by his observation that managers overestimate their ability to predict the future and to plan for it in a precise and technocratic way. By drawing a distinction between deliberate and emergent strategy, he wanted to encourage managers to watch carefully for changes in their environment and make course corrections in their deliberate strategy accordingly. In addition, he warned against the dangers of sticking to a fixed strategy in the face of substantial changes in the competitive environment.


In an effort to get a handle on strategy, managers spend thousands of hours drawing up detailed plans that project revenue far into the future. These plans may make managers feel good, but all too often they matter very little to performance. Continue reading