Why Great Leaders Don't Take Yes for an Answer: Managing for Conflict and Consensus

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9780131454392: Why Great Leaders Don't Take Yes for an Answer: Managing for Conflict and Consensus

Harvard Business School's Michael Roberto draws on powerful decision-making case studies from every walk of life, showing how to promote honest, constructive dissent and skepticism; use it to improve decisions; and align organizations behind those decisions.  Learn from disasters like the Space Shuttle Columbia and JFK's Bay of Pigs Invasion,  from successes like Sid Caesar and Bill Parcells, from George W. Bush's decision-making after 9/11. Roberto complements his compelling case studies with extensive new research on executive decisionmaking. Discover how to test and probe a management team; when 'yes' means 'yes' and when it doesn't; and how to build real consensus that leads to action. Gain important new insights into managing teams, mitigating risk, promoting corporate ethics, and much more.

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About the Author:

Michael A. Roberto is a faculty member at the Harvard Business School. He teaches courses on general management, managerial decision making, and business strategy. Professor Roberto's research focuses on strategic decision-making processes and senior management teams. Recently, he has studied why catastrophic group or organizational failures happen, such as the Columbia space shuttle accident and the 1996 Mount Everest tragedy.

Professor Roberto's work has been published in the Harvard Business Review, California Management Review, and The Leadership Quarterly.

He has taught in the leadership development programs at a number of organizations including Morgan Stanley, Mars, The Home Depot, Novartis, and The World Bank. He has also consulted with organizations such as Johnson & Johnson, Lockheed Martin, Corporate Executive Board, and The Advisory Board.

Professor Roberto earned an M.B.A. with High Distinction and a doctorate from the Harvard Business School. While pursuing graduate studies at Harvard, he taught the introductory undergraduate course in economic theory, twice winning Harvard's Allyn Young Prize for Teaching in Economics.

He lives in Holliston, Massachusetts with his wife, Kristin, and his two daughters, Grace and Celia.

© Copyright Pearson Education. All rights reserved.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:



After 86 years of anguish and heartache, the Boston Red Sox finally won the World Series. Just two months later, the team's talented, young general manager, Theo Epstein, chose not to match the New York Mets' four-year $50+ million guaranteed contract offer to star pitcher Pedro Martinez. The decision received mixed reactions from the fans in Boston and New York. Red Sox fans recognized that the pitcher's skills had begun to erode, but still, they believed that it would be difficult to find someone of comparable ability to replace Martinez. Mets fans heralded the arrival of a new star to lead their beleaguered pitching staff, but they wondered whether Mets general manager Omar Minaya overpaid for an aging and injury-prone ballplayer. The debate rages on: Did Epstein and Minaya make good decisions?

At this moment, before any games have been played in 2005, no one knows for certain whether the leaders of these two teams made sound decisions. To judge them fairly, we must await the results of the upcoming season as well as several campaigns to follow. Then, with the benefit of hindsight, fans and sportswriters can evaluate the merits of choosing to sign or not sign Martinez to such a lucrative, long-term contract. We will hold the two general managers to account for the outcomes that the teams achieve, and people will debate how much these specific decisions affected the teams' performance.

In all types of organizations—from sports franchises to business enterprises to public institutions—leaders often must wait a long time to see the results of the decisions that they make. Should they judge all decisions simply based on the outcomes that their organizations achieve? In this book, I argue that leaders need not wait for the results to measure their decision-making effectiveness. Instead, leaders ought to take a hard look at the process that they are employing to make critical choices. Outcomes cannot be measured for months or perhaps years. The decision process can be evaluated in real time, as the choice is being made. Epstein and Minaya cannot control fully the outcomes that their teams achieve in the years ahead. Yet, in here and now, they can shape and influence the nature of the decision processes that their organizations employ. In so doing, the general managers can raise or lower the odds that they and their management teams can make sound choices.

Think for a moment about a decision that you and your team or organization is currently trying to make. Have you considered multiple alternatives? Have you surfaced and tested your assumptions carefully? Did dissenting views emerge during your deliberations, and have you given those ideas proper consideration? Are you building high levels of commitment and shared understanding among those who will be responsible for implementing the decision? The answers to these questions—and a number of others—help us to evaluate the quality of an organization's decision-making process. The core premise of this book is that a high-quality process tends to enhance the probability of achieving positive outcomes. Therefore, a leader can have an enormous impact through his management of an organization's decision-making processes. Good process does not simply mean sound analytics (i.e., the best use of the latest strategy framework or quantitative financial evaluation technique). Good process entails the astute management of the social, political, and emotional aspects of decision making as well. Decision making in complex organizations is far from a purely intellectual exercise, as most experienced managers know. Thus, an effective leader does not just produce positive results by weighing in on the content of critical choices in a wise and thoughtful manner; he also has a substantial impact by shaping and influencing how those decisions are made.

In this book, I make two fundamental arguments with regard to how leaders can enhance the quality of their decision-making processes. First, leaders must cultivate constructive conflict so as to enhance the level of critical and divergent thinking, while simultaneously building consensus so as to facilitate the timely and efficient implementation of the choices that they make. Managing the tension between conflict and consensus represents one of the most fundamental challenges of leadership. By consensus, I do not mean unanimity, like-mindedness, or even pervasive agreement. Instead, I define consensus to mean a high level of commitment and shared understanding among the people involved in the decision. Leaders can build buy-in and collective comprehension without appeasing everyone on their teams or making decisions by majority vote. This book explains how leaders can do that.

The second fundamental argument put forth in this book is that effective leaders can and should spend time "deciding how to decide." In short, creating high-quality decision-making processes necessitates a good deal of forethought. When faced with a complex and pressing issue, most of us want to dive right in to solve the problem. Given our expertise in a particular field, we have a strong desire to apply our knowledge and devise an optimal solution. However, leadership does not entail a single-minded focus on the content of the decisions that we face. It also involves some thought regarding how a group or organization should go about making a critical choice. Deciding how to decide involves an assessment of who should be involved in the deliberations, what type of interpersonal climate we would like to foster, how individuals should communicate with one another, and the extent and type of control that the leader will exert during the process. In this book, you see that leaders have a number of levers that they can employ to design more effective decision-making processes and to shape how they unfold over time. I argue that leaders should be directive when it comes to influencing the way in which decisions are made in their groups or organizations, without trying to dominate or micromanage the substance of the discussion and evaluation that takes place. Spending time deciding how to decide enhances the probability of managing conflict and consensus effectively.

This book offers practical guidance—grounded in extensive academic research—for leaders who want to improve the way that they make complex, high-stakes choices. One need not be a general manager or chief executive officer to benefit from the concepts described here. Any leader of a group of people—no matter the level in the organization—can apply the ideas examined in this book. Scholars and students too can benefit from this book, because it offers new conceptual frameworks about organizational decision making, integrates existing theory in novel ways, and introduces a set of rich case studies that illuminate interesting issues with relevance to both theory and practice.

The Research

The research for this book began in July 1996. It involved several major field research projects as well as the development of numerous case studies. The first major piece of research for this book involved a 2-year study of decision making in the aerospace/defense industry. I conducted an exhaustive examination of 10 strategic choices made by 3 subsidiaries of a leading firm in that market. The research involved well over 100 hours of interviews with managers in those businesses, 2 rounds of surveys, an extensive review of archival documents, and direct observations of meetings. By immersing myself in these organizations, I became intimately familiar with how these executives managed conflict and consensus more or less effectively. This book contains many examples from this body of research, although one should note that names of individuals and firms have been disguised for confidentiality reasons.

The second body of research for this book involved a survey of 78 business unit presidents across different firms listed in the April 2000 edition of the Fortune 500. Whereas the prior field research had enabled me to gather extensive amounts of qualitative data regarding a few senior management teams and a small set of strategic decision processes, this large sample survey-based study provided an opportunity to identify patterns in decision making across many firms.

The third major research project comprised in-depth interviews with 35 general managers of firms or business units in the Boston area across many different industries. In each interview, I asked the managers to compare two decisions that they had made—one that they considered successful and another that they did not. The study enabled me to focus very closely on how leaders thought about process choices that they had made as they were making critical decisions.

Finally, the research involved numerous case studies of particular decisions and organizations. A distinguishing feature of this research is that it includes cases from many disparate settings, not just business enterprises. I have examined decision making by mountain-climbing expeditions, firefighting teams, NASA managers and engineers, government policy makers, and various nonprofit institutions. The varied nature of these studies has enabled me to develop a rich understanding of how leaders and organizations make decisions in different settings and circumstances.

Two case studies deserve special mention here, because my colleagues and I spent an extraordinary amount of time examining those situations, using novel techniques both for gathering the data and presenting the ideas to students. David Garvin and I conducted an in-depth study of Paul Levy, the CEO of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. The case, which we impart to students in multimedia format, proves distinctive because we tracked his turnaround of the organization in real time from the moment he took over as the chief executive. We interviewed him on video every two to four weeks during his first...

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