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String Theory and Untangling Organizational Politics
- A Practical Example

Following on from the previous post, let's take a look at some practical examples of using String Theory (as I called it) in real business examples. This one is about unraveling company politics. Organizations have politics and they get knotty. Here's a case where we worked out a better answer.

Liz called with a difficult problem that came from success. In the middle of her career in high tech, she'd joined an old line financial services company. They asked her to help them build partnerships with 'new wave' companies. She was perfect for them, and a challenge. The company management (lets call it FinServ) chose her because she is part of their future. The tension comes because she is a fast mover in an industry that has shifted slowly. Not all of the company executives have the same bias to action. And Liz called me because that was suddenly a problem.

It started when Liz started to land customers with names and valuations that were on the same level as FinServ. Then she had a phenomenon that she didn't expect - competition from within her company. It seemed that everyone wanted to meet with the customer, and to work their own projects with the client. Executives and managers from all over FinServ were calling her customer.

If that happens once or twice, it is not a big deal. However, the client's top managers were getting multiple calls each week. Worse, the offers and proposals often conflicted with each other. FinServ was competing with FinServ.

For a short while it was flattering for the client, then it became a nuisance. Liz started to be concerned that FinServ looked more than a little disorganized. Her worry was that FinServ's credibility was challenged and so was hers. She was apprehensive that she might lose the customer if this continued.

Liz isn't a part of the informal power structure at FinServ and she had limited organizational authority. She wanted to fix this issue. It would be difficult to arrange, but she wanted to sit down with FinServ's President. She wanted him to mandate that contact with the customer be co-ordinated with her team. Divisional independence is valued at FinServ. Her request would be a hard sale and might be seen as a power grab.

Liz and Finserv had a difficult problem. I like and respect difficult problems. So we got into string theory.

The basic idea is simple enough - there are two answers to the question of how to open a bag of grain that is sewn shut. You can pull at the string from either end of the closure. One end of the string is difficult and gets more so as you tug harder. Pulling on the correct end is easy, one tug and you have success.

The solution isn't to pull harder. The solution is to choose the right end to pull.

Choosing sides in FinServ would be very difficult, and the string was clearly going to knot up if she promoted one internal group over another. The wrong end of the string was to fight politics with more politics inside FinServ. Choosing a side there was very difficult. That is usually a sign that we are on the wrong end of the string.

However, not trying to solve this was worse. She might lose the customer. That would be bad for FinServ, and bad for Liz.

She decided that the right end of the string would be to focus solely on what is best for the customer, not FinServ. So she sat down and laid out what it would mean for the customer if FinServ burned them off. She showed how FinServ could best support that customer. Not from her company's point of view, but from how the customer saw it. Her new plan was to go to FinServ's president and say: "Here is what is right for the customer, not for any one group in FinServ. Would you sign onto this plan if it helps the customer first? If it includes a primary point of contact?" She chose to pull the string from the customer perspective, not the FinServ perspective. It was a risk, but it felt to her like the correct risk to take.

It meant that she'd ask the CEO to tell every manager or executive in FinServ that the company was going to support a customer first plan. She'd have to remain completely neutral by focusing solely on what was best for the customer.

Would this be easy? Probably not. Would it be easier than trying to manage the FinServ political landscape? No question. Starting with the customer needs and making them the only criteria was right end of the string.




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