16 October 2009

Commitment to Intentions

Some months ago I was involved in a management retreat for work. The retreat's primary agenda focused on a proposed reorganization of the company. The entire first day discussed the ramifications of the changes and what the company would like after it was complete. As we worked late into the night we started planning the timescale for the reorganization.

At the beginning of the timescale planning the question was asked, “Do we all agree to do it?” There was a long silence. No one wanted to commit to the process with so many unanswered questions. Slowly a new discussion emerged that was a rehash of an old discussion: We don’t know because we don’t have all our questions answered.

The discussion was prolonging the issue and allowing us to answer around the important question. Just when we seemed doomed to revisit the entire days meeting Hero raised his hand. He waited for the room to fall silent before speaking.

“I think we are asking the wrong question,” he said. Then he told the story.

As a young man he had decided to buy a house. At the time the housing market was ripe with small 2 bedroom houses. Hero didn’t have any need for a bigger house and in fact was quite contend with a small house. The Realtor took Hero to see various houses all of which had the same fatal flaw: they were old. Hero was not a very handyman when it came to fixing up houses. The Realtor pointed out that in order for Hero to sell the house again, at an increased value, work would need to be done.

Then one day the Realtor took Hero to a small house tucked down a short private street. The house, along with the two others on the street, had been built by the same construction company who had been renting the houses out. Their policy was only to rent for a couple of years then to quickly sell the house. The duplex on the corner had been sold previous, the larger house at the end was too expensive and was already being battled over, but the three bedroom house in the middle was just right.

There was just one catch. In order to get inside the house to see it Hero would have to put in an offer to buy the house. The Realtor explained that this was not too unusual of a request because it was currently being rented out. The solution was simple: the Realtor would include a clause that the offer was contingent on Hero’s inspection of the inside. He could, for any reason, back out if he didn’t like what he saw on the inside.

The offer was written and accepted in short order. Hero and the Realtor inspected the inside.

“I like it,” Hero told the Realtor. “What do we do now?”

“You buy it,” the Realtor replied.

“What if the inspection comes back bad?” Hero asked.

“I’ll put in the contingencies for things like that,” the Realtor assured. “What I need to know now is, barring any major unforeseen issues, do you want to buy this house?”

Hero thought for several minutes then turned to the Realtor and said, “Yes”. A month later he owned the house and has happily owned it since.

Back at the retreat, Hero looked across the room. “I think the question we should be asking is the same question my realtor asked me: Barring any major unforeseen issues, is this course of the action the one we want to take?”

One by one, each member of the Company’s management stated “yes” in agreement with the plan. I pondered on the difference between the questions; they were small differences but had a profound difference. The first was asking for blind commitment, asking if we would all back, no matter what came, the plan that was presented. The second is a question of intention, asking if we are commitment, short of major problems, to see the plan through. The second question is much easier to answer than the first.

There is an additional benefit to commitment to intentions. By committing the group to its intentions Hero had in a single moment committed the Company to an end goal, not the process that would take it there, another subtle difference. Often in these meetings we decide that something needed to be done and how we would do it. Our commitment was usually to the process, not the end result. So when the process was complete and we didn’t get what we wanted we were left hanging, not sure what to do not. Being committed to the end goal meant that no matter what we were traveling until we got our desired results, or discovered they were unachievable, and we wouldn’t stop until we got there.

Finally, committing the management team to its intentions, not the process, did much too safe guard the pride and honor of the team. Instead of having attached their name to the process, which may or may not have been the best course, they had attached their names to a carefully analyzed, examined and thought out end goal. Even if the proscribe process as outlined in the retreat were to utterly fail, the team still wouldn’t have failed. Though the process could have been flawed, the goal itself was solid.

Postmortem: The Company's reorganization continued, not entirely as planned, but well enough. In hind sight, out commitment to intentions that Hero had gathered proved invaluable when tough decision needed to be made.

In class we had been talking about barriers to communications and I was reminded by this story. Communications in that retreat and sometimes during the reorganization process began to crumble as the road got harder and, more particularly, when it wasn't clear where we were headed. Having a clear understanding of the Fathers' intentions help everyone to back up during high stress times to remind ourselves why we were doing all this work.

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