2 March 2011

Book: The Right Fight

I first came across this book when I read an article in strategy + business, co-authored by one of the book's writers. The authors of  'Getting Tensions Right' (Ken Favaro and Saj-Nicole Joni) have found that, far from avoiding or suppressing tension in their organisations, "the most successful chief executives have an uncanny ability to turn conflict, dissent and disagreement into progress". As I am a great believer in collaboration - of the kind that includes listening to those we don't agree with and learn from their point of view - I especially welcomed the quote from Brian Pittman, former Lloyds TSB Chief Exec:

"You need real disagreement first to get true agreement later."

Not all tensions are productive and of course, not all fights are worth fighting, and that is precisely where 'The Right Fight - -how great leaders use healthy conflict to drive performance, innovation and value', comes in.

The book will be really useful for all those wanting to instigate change in their organisation or needing to fight for what they believe in. It will also be of interest to assess the challenges we come across in life.

The Right Fight is full of case studies - and I am glad to say that those mentioned in the s + b article are not all included, making the article an interesting complement to the work of Saj-Nicole Joni and Damon Beyer, and not just a summary of the book.  Some of the case studies are inspirational stories of success, where individuals and teams have turned around organisations. Others can serve as  warnings - when individuals have not been able to see beyond their own points of view and egos.

What struck me most about the case studies, was the range of organisations and projects featured: from usual suspects such as Dell and General Electric, through the Acumen Fund and the Oval Office, to The Lion King Broadway show. And in case the reader has difficulty in relating to the leaders at the top of their game, the authors end the first part of the book with the story of Jack, a middle manager, a story which "takes into account the human side of what it requires to engage in right fights".

The book begins with examples of fights not worth fighting for and of "right fights fought wrong". The learning points from the case studies go right to the heart of leadership. For example,

"The role of Harvard's president must be to create an environment where other smart people want to be present, where there is openness to differing views and real collegial give and take when decisions need to happen."

Part Two consists of 'The Right Fight Decision Principles' - how to identify whether a fight is worth fighting. (The book ends with a list of questions to help you identify the right fight, which might come in handy if you lose a sense of perspective or can no longer look at the problem with fresh eyes.)

1. Make it Material.
What's a stake needs to matter.

2. Focus on the future, not the past.
It is important to dissect the past only with a view to improving the future.

"Beyond blame and accountability, there is the excitement of possibility."

3. Pursue a noble purpose.
Go back to basics, what is this organisation for?

Following the principles which a right fight must follow, the authors suggest the best rules to apply during the fight.

A) Make it sport, not war.

"Most companies tend to conceal or smooth over deep divides in the mistaken belief that the appearance of unity is the best way to get business done. It is far more productive, however, when an effective referee uses the energy present in the tensions between opposing viewpoints to move things forward."

B) Structure formally but work informally.
The importance of professional relationships based on expertise and trust and not hierarchy.

C) Turn pain into gain.
This last point highlights the importance of knowing team members as individuals, to make sure those who lose the fight also benefit from the results in some way. This chapter is also a good reminder of the need to "figure out how to set the bar high enough to require people to stretch, but not so high they have no hope of clearing it."

I would recommend this book: it is a good reminder that right fights are worth fighting for, that they involve listening to a range of people around us and above all, that they take time.

"Executives who engage in right fights constantly balance the tension between what's good for their team member's performance and what's good for the company as a whole."

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