Why Great Leaders Don’t Take Yes For An Answer | Book Review

“Our institutions need leaders who can motivate people,
manage organizational change, and align disparate groups
behind a common goal
. (p. 301) 

Michael Roberto’s deeply researched book examines decision making in the aerospace/defense industry, based on surveying 78 business unit presidents, in-depth interviews of 35 local (Boston) general managers (p. xvi), and is an excellent companion to the landmark Crucial Conversations

Like Crucial Conversations, or Vroom’s case studies comparing time-based and development-based decision making, Roberto’s work serves as a valuable reference for anyone who wishes to improve individual and organizational decision making. 

At the core, Roberto cites two fundamental arguments how leaders can enhance the quality of their decision-making. First, leaders must cultivate constructive conflict; second, they can and should spend time “deciding how to decide.” (pp. xiv-xv) 

There are four parts to the book: Part I offers a conceptual framework for thinking about how to diagnose, evaluate, and improve strategic decision-making processes, Part II focuses on the task of managing conflict, Part III concentrates on how managers create consensus within their organizations, and Part IV reflects on how Roberto’s philosophy differs from the conventional views held by many managers (p. xx). This review introduces the challenge, or need, for better decision making and ties numerous findings to lessons learned in our Leveraging the Power of Conflict and Advanced Communications workshops.  

Framework | The Challenge 

Many organizations are mired with poor decision making. Roberto examined how Alan Mulally (Ford Motor Co) changed the way that decisions were made (p. 5). Mulally explained the consequences (p. 3) for those who would not abide by the new ground rules: “If you can’t do it or don’t want to do it or it’s too hard, that’s o.k. You’ll just have to work someplace else.” We can think of poor decision making as a core value which may require fundamental change starting at the top, in order to become a function of both decision quality and implementation effectiveness (p. 8). 

Roberto lists common myths we tend to believe or promote (p. 12): 

1. The Chief Executive Decides
2. Decisions are Made in the Room
3. Decisions are Largely Intellectual Exercises
4. Managers Analyze and Then Decide
5. Managers Decide and then Act 

Additionally, we fall prey to many failings, such as “sunk-cost bias,” leading to poor decisions (p. 19-20) and the unnecessary tragedy described on Mt. Everest. Why does this happen? Roberto reveals that people tend to draw upon deeply ingrained mental models of the environment that served them well in the past (p. 27). We also tend to rush to action rather than think first. This reminds us of After Action Reviews (AARs), since many tend to focus first and foremost on finding the “right” solution when a problem arises rather than stepping back to determine the “right” process that should be employed to make the decision (p. 29). 

Effective leaders must be aware of and minimize pressures that may exist, as Robert McNamara’s retelling of the Bay of Pigs Invasion (p. 40) illustrates: “Even though some had thoughts that it was an irrational or unreasonable operation, there was great pressure to support it.” Roberto lists four important sets of choices that affect a leader’s ability to cultivate constructive conflict and build enduring consensus (p. 45): 

1. Determine the composition of the decision-making body,
2. Shape the context in which deliberations will take place,
3. Determine how communication will take place among participants,
4. Determine the extent and manner in which he will control the process and content of the decision.

Managing Conflict

Recall from our Leveraging the Power of Conflict workshop that, on average, we spend 25% of each day dealing with conflict. Also, most of us are conflict avoiders, and this is often related to a dominant blue (blue in two or three dimensions) Energize2Lead profile. Not surprisingly, conflict and candor may be woefully inadequate in your organization (p. 78).

Roberto considers the culture at NASA leading to the Columbia Space Shuttle disaster, citing former shuttle astronaut Jim Bagian: “At senior levels, during the 1990s, dissent was not tolerated, and therefore people learned if you want to survive in the organization, you had to keep your mouth shut.” (p. 83). Not a very safe environment for a crucial conversation. Roberto delineates hard and soft barriers to speaking up (p. 84); where hard barriers tend to be structural in nature and soft barriers including perceptions and language. NASA was replete with soft barriers.

Our Leadership Philosophy also matters. One cannot discount the critical role that a particular leader’s style and personality can play in encouraging or discouraging candid dialogue within an organization (pp. 100-101). Roberto describes four Cs – composition, context, communication, and control – to sow the seed for a fruitful debate and an effective decision-making process (p. 113). Roberto shares how psychologist Gary Klein advocates use of a simple “pre-mortem” exercise to help people test one another’s beliefs regarding the risk and obstacles that may occur if the firm chooses a particular course of action (p. 121). This is very similar to Annie Duke’s wonderful approach in Thinking in Bets.

CEO Mike Mussallem wanted the concept of “creative debate” to permeate his organization (p. 137), or put another way, he wanted to Make it Safe, as we learned in Crucial Conversations. In a very useful Table 5.3 (p. 151), Roberto lists excellent ground rules, such as clarifying the role each individual will play in the discussion, as part of a leadership strategy for managing conflict.

A scarcity mindset may impede collaboration. Too often, people believe that they are playing a zero-sum game, when, in fact, win-win solutions still may be achievable. In these circumstances, leaders need to shift the focus back to the problem that needs to be solved (p. 159).

Roberto highlights pros and cons of using a Devil’s Advocate approach, since individuals typically do not disclose data that they possess but that others do not (p. 183). The plussing technique, used at Pixar, by starting with an element of a sketch that has merit and builds on that concept (p. 190), may both overcome a scarcity mindset and build advocacy.

Collaboration and Consensus

Recall the collaboration strategy, or win-win, is the most preferred in our Leveraging the Power of Conflict workshop. When Louis Gerstner was challenged to turnaround IBM, he found that in the corporate culture delivering a “gotcha” during a presentation became a badge of honor (p. 207). A win-lose mentality. We shouldn’t let perfection be the enemy of good enough. Another issue is organizations that strive for certainty in an inherently uncertain world – to turn every maybe into a simple yes or no (p. 213). Roberto recommends analogies as especially useful when decision makers do not have access to complete information (p. 219).

Feedback is critical. Researchers Audrey Korsgaard, David Schweiger, and Harry Sapienza showed that “the manner in which team leaders elicit, receive, and respond to team members’ input affects their attitudes toward the decisions themselves and toward other members of teams, including the leaders.” (p. 239). Roberto showcases Abraham Lincoln’s model, or how we can shift the dialogue away from whether to do something to the issue of how to do it (p. 246). An excellent leader as coach approach.

Roberto also advocates small wins. A “small wins” approach helps groups overcome two types of obstacles that impede decision making in complicated high-stakes situations: cognitive and socio-emotional (p. 279). Two approaches are favored. Small wins can be process-oriented, such as goals and objectives, or outcome-oriented such as contingency plans (p. 283).

Coaching | Leading with Restraint

In summary, be a humble leader. By leading with restraint, individuals in positions of authority recognize that their understanding and knowledge in a particular domain are often bounded, imprecise, and incomplete (p. 309).

Ultimately, Roberto is promoting effective leaders as coaches:

“Great leaders do not have all the answers, but they remain firmly in control of the process through which their organizations discover the best answers to the toughest problems.” (p. 313)

Note: Michael Roberto generously provided a copy of his book for review.

JE | October 2018