Tag Archives: Supply Chain

The Balancing Act of Collaborating

There is lots of talk about “getting on the same page,” but in most work situations some level of conflict persists and can vary from subtle differences in opinion to diametrically opposed views. We all know that maintaining cordial working relationships is a must, yet too much focus appeasing diminishes our results and too much focus on our agenda carries the risk of losing status as “a team player.”

It can feel a bit like walking a tightrope and constantly balancing between

  • Being self assured, but not belligerent.
  • Being accommodating, but not spineless.
  • Being ambitious, but staying realistic (Picture a “stretch goal” snapping our rope!)

Maintaining forward momentum while maintaining this “balance” is also tricky. There are three large areas of attention that can help:
How am I seeing the situation (and should I look at it differently)?

With reams of data at our disposal, it is very easy to arrive at very different evidence-supported answers to the question “how are we doing?”  Those closest to the situation tend to have a really good read on how things actually work, but once performance measures are imposed, these same people can start to question their gut feelings. Taking time to gather a different perspective on your own may be more effective than simply taking in the perspectives of others. One part confidence; two parts humility.

Who do I have to work with (and how are those existing relationships)?

We have relationships to manage that are up, down and across. Our group of stakeholders will vary in terms of stature they maintain in the organization, but individual differences in style almost guarantees interpersonal challenges amidst the organizational politics. In practice, we have to navigate a complex web to get what we want for us and for others. Efforts are building/rebuilding relationships can make the tightrope seem a little wider (or maybe not so high).

What are the real priorities here (or, at least, what should they be)?

Sticking with the “rope” metaphor (why abandon it now?), what happens when tightropes turn into tug-o-wars? Such situations tend to consume lots of effort, but provide disappointingly little in the form of results. Many of us are not in the position to impose our views on the organization, but we all can exert a degree of influence. Even when things are at cross-purposes, speaking truth to power can be scary. Is asking power for a small clarification any better?

Leadership and decision-making

Earlier this winter I had the good fortune to spend 2 days with a group involved in development and education on Leadership as part of the professional certification offered by the Supply Chain Management Association of Canada. Any discussion of Leadership brings forward a philosophy, whether spoken or unspoken, and the approach in this context was “leadership can come from anywhere in the organization.” This orientation is fitting because this program includes people at many different career stages. Through the program, we spend time gaining a better understanding of characteristics of leadership and, as a follow-up assignment, participants determine the characteristics that are most important to them, and use these to build a personal development plan.

Grading can be one of the more tedious activities for any educator, but these are often extremely interesting and insightful. Some commonalities in these papers struck me. Many selected “communication” as a core component of leadership and went on to identify that as an area for improvement. As a rule, I think we often admire the gifts of speech making and communication exhibited by leadership role models who speak eloquently, exude confidence, and excel at getting ‘buy-in” from important constituencies. Another grouping of characteristic that garnered attention were those attached to “honesty,” “integrity,” and “authenticity.” By contrast, none chose this as an area of development and several offered this up as a personal strength. (In addition to causing me to ponder, I had a laugh-out-loud as one paper listed “humility” among key attributes, going on to self assess this at 10/10.)

I will confess to having difficulty with the stark distinction between making the decision (with integrity, etc.) and communicating that decision. A disingenuous leadership metaphor would be “putting lipstick on a pig,” but is it not equally disingenuous to allow a bad situation to continue because we are “picking out battles” or “not rocking the boat” or in some other way rationalizing a decision to let something slide?

This is not my areas of expertise, but the realms of critical thinking and ethics would, I believe, provide some guidance as to how to make decisions. Many situations faced by leaders are ambiguous and they may not even know what to believe. Outwardly, they must convey confidence, but determining if that confidence is warranted is a different issue. I will lay a great deal of responsibility in this area on leadership to not only communicate, but also engage in the thinking that deserves trust.

As a further comment on the connection between “the decision” and “the support of that decision,” I spoke with a colleague of mine regarding the subjectivity of some business courses (e.g. mine in management) compared to others (e.g hers in corporate finance). We concluded that Finance’s rigourous and specific tools bring a common language to “make the case” to various constituencies so as to predict future scenarios and be ready with contingencies if things fail to go as planned. We must have faith in leadership (or decision makers) that the original decision is indeed sound. I can’t help but think that this misses a very important moment in leadership when you decide what you are going to do, especially if you have (1) the authority, (2) the personal communication gifts to sell anything and (3) a team of financial experts ready to make your case.

On the same page, are we? (Survey Insights Part 3)

This article appears in the August 2013 newsletter for the Canadian Supply Chain Sector Council (supplychaincanada.org).

You will see in an earlier newsletter article a survey to capture some firsthand insights on how organizations tend to align actions and intent. The three broad areas that we explored were:

  1. To what degree do people in the organization pursue the same objective(s)
  2. To what extent do people share the same measures/metrics to gauge their performance
  3. How does collaboration work in the organization

Below, we share some of the insights and will continue to release findings on this website. Our underlying thinking is that performance-driven collaboration has a great chance of happening naturally when the parties (1) share a view of what they want to achieve and (2) agree upon the indicators of whether or not they are making progress.

It is pretty simple, but as Warren Buffett claims of investing, “it is simple, not easy.” In other news, the recipe for losing weight is simple: consume fewer calories, exercise more, or do both. As many can attest, execution is not easy, and can beg a number of deeper questions:

  1. If I don’t have time to exercise, what do I need to change to free up that time? (Looking at connections in the wider system.)
  2. Am I healthy/happy enough, even though I am a bit over weight? (Questioning weight as the best measure.)
  3. Why do I want to be healthy anyway? (Staring into the abyss of life.)

Note: Our consulting approach can help you navigate Questions 1 and 2. For Question 3, we are happy to hear you out, but soul searching is often an individual endeavour.

Here are some of the highlights of our Summer Alignment Survey:

1 – It’s clearer from the top

We asked people to report the degree to which they thought the overall direction was clear to them and others. The clarity rises as you get further up the org chart.

But, you knew that. It is simple.

The not so easy part is how can you acknowledge some ambiguity in the overall direction, but make it clear enough that people can maintain congruent priorities.

Have a look at two different reasonable explanations here .

2 – Authoritative decision making, without clear criteria, breeds conflict

The survey gathered information on how decision-making fits in with collaboration, and the interplay between the level of engagement with the organization and providing clear direction.

Another simple insight emerged: When the perceived leadership style veered toward the top-down approach, people reported having conflicting inter-departmental priorities and succumbing to pressures to protect information.

Again, the challenge here for leadership is to be able to provide compelling rationale for decisions, even in the face of reasoned disagreement. This necessitates clarity on the kind of performance the organization is pursuing and how that performance is being measured.

3 – Here’s one that pertains specifically to supply chain

We asked a question in regard to the extent to which colleagues were on the same page. One third of respondents were evenly split between “I don’t know” and “priorities conflict.” The uncanny symmetry repeats with the remaining two-thirds equally split between “my immediate team concurs” and “we all concur”.

From anecdotal experience, having conversations about performance always involves revealing the connections that individuals believe are most important in achieving success. These beliefs are as much art as science, such as:

  • We need profitability to drive innovation.
  • A focus on employee safety firms up our value to clients, unions and funders.
  • Efficiency means the right product in the right place at the right time.
  • Close relationships ensure long-term success.
  • Cash flow is king.

What you believe starts the story and sets up whether you are in conflict, in cahoots or out-of-touch with colleagues and collaborators. It can be worthwhile to check in on how aligned personal views are with organizational direction.


  • For the one-third that is sure that everyone is aligned: Good for you!
  • For the one-third that is sure at least their group is aligned: Clarifying the fit with other groups and the wider effort will help align actions and reduce friction.
  • For the one-third that is in conflict or unsure: Confirming the conflict can expose a strategic decision that can shape a shared view of performance.

It is as simple as asking, but it is not easy to get good answers from the inside.

It’s clearer at the top (Survey Insights Part 1)

NOTE: This is the first in a series of insight pieces drawn from the Measure of Success Alignment Survey (Summer 2013). We will be sharing others over the coming weeks and months. 

You can envision the metaphor: a mountaintop whose snowy peak juts above the cloud line. From base camp, the summit is shrouded, but we all know it is up there somewhere. The journey to the top will take some skillful navigation through cloud and fog. As you burst through the other side of the clouds en route to the summit, it all becomes crystal clear.

Not surprisingly, our survey revealed that those in executive positions report the highest instance of clarity with respect to the organization’s ultimate direction. Fully 60% selected “it’s tattooed on the inside of my eyelids” to the question “how easily can you relay the spirit of the organization’s stated mission?”

Senior management’s eyelids are unblemished by tattoos, and this group reported lower levels of clarity than middle managers. Two in three of this latter group said they would be “pretty close.”

At the lower levels of the organization, almost 40% of those “well down the org chart” confessed that the overall direction was not at all clear. Across all levels of the organization, comparatively fewer people said they would “have to check,” which could suggest that the spirit of the orientation is seen as more important than the actual wording of the formal policy statements (or tattoos).

Insight #1 Chart 1

A few things jumped out at us after looking at these results:

1 – Why is it clearer at the top?

Picture your boss (or even better, your boss’ boss) coming by and asking if you needed any clarification on organizational direction. The path of least resistance and minimal downside is to answer: “No worries here, Boss. I get it.” The dynamic is often such that suggesting that you are not clear poses risks in two areas: (1) you are seen as simply not “getting it,” and (2) you are forced to overtly challenge longstanding assumptions. For those with even a modicum of political savvy, neither is a smart move.

2 – For overall direction, is “pretty close” close enough?

The overall direction of the organization comes from a collection of efforts rather than from a pithy bumper sticker statement or rigourous “how-to” protocol. Since so few people needed “to check,” the uncertainty for overall priorities appear to stem from conflicting agendas rather than from not being able to recall. The group that we surveyed contained capable and employable people who can fully contribute to an organization’s success. This was not a group of people screaming: “Just tell me what to do!”

3 – Are the trade-offs apparent outside the trenches?

One of the classic trade-offs in servicing clients is: do we give people what they want or what they need? Obviously the salesperson’s role is to bridge those worlds, but what if we can’t do both? If we are in the business of exceeding customers expectations and our customers have unreasonable expectations (or are not willing to pay to have their expectations exceeded) the objective becomes untenable. One may not see this disconnect from the heights of the executive suites.

We isolated some implications from these areas of misalignment (This is the “so what?” part.)

For Collaboration with External Stakeholders:

If the overall aims of the organization are overly fuzzy, so will the means to achieve them. Establishing the connections that drive performance is vital, otherwise in the spirit of reaching a workable solution with an external partner, we risk unknowingly compromising on something that is fundamentally important. Often in such collaborations, something has to give. Let’s make sure it’s not a fundamental attribute of performance.

For Internal Collaboration:

In working across divisions, the nuances of what takes priority can get lost when  “everything is mission critical” and there is no time to think. Subtle differences in focus on what it takes to be successful can cause drag on performance. To a large extent, this drag is avoidable if we can get clear on what really drives the organization’s success.

For Poised-for-Growth Organizations:

New organizations work extremely hard to build the foundation for their success. This is largely through securing investors. Just like a strong foundation helps to support a structure, it is easier to adjust the structure before the building gets to high. Before an organization has a chance to necessarily split the ranks too much (Executive Leadership, Senior Managers, Middle Managers, etc.) there is a unique opportunity to clarify the direction and the spirit of performance. This can be framed as follows: “We all want fantastic business/financial success. What do we think we have to do to achieve that?”

Rather than an eyelid tattoo, we can create a shared focus for the talents and energies of those driving your success.

Click here for more information on this survey and the services we provide.

Collaboration and other tired words

There is a lifecycle to the words that we use to talk about business performance. Overuse flattens the impact of what were once meaningful contributions to the English language. Some casualties may include “Value Added,” “Synergy,” and “Change Management,” but my favourite on this list is “Collaboration.” Part of the fatigue with “Collaboration” may come from the inherent tension between nurturing relationships and delivering results. So without using that word, how can we get along with each other AND get things done?

Let’s look at the some of the possibilities.

Potential Solution Reasoned Rationale Predictable Problem
Build trust People will develop faith that a colleague is not just being objectionable; they are just doing their job. What if these people are actually messing it up for the rest of us?
Better communication This could build the trust that clears the air. Again, what if the wrong people learn how to be persuasive?
Clear performance measures Use the right measures.Note: If you need to, go watch “Moneyball” (Brad Pitt is great in it!) But does a good 1st quarter necessarily mean a good 2nd one? A good year? Long-term performance?
Better hiring If you have people who “get it,” then it becomes so much easier. But don’t you need new perspectives?
Less competition Some breathing room in the market would let us go back to being nice to each other. Where are you going to find less competition these days?


How about this?

Potential Solution Reasoned Rationale Predictable Problem
Better alignment of tangible measures with overall objectives Conflict arises only over how best to accomplish the shared goals and objectives, and we agree on the chosen measures. It is a potentially messy proposition…

It’s not collaboration that is complicated; it’s aligning activity toward purpose. There can be very different perceptions and interpretations of “What are we trying to accomplish?” and “How will we know we are getting there?”

For example, imagine the senior executive who is convinced that success of the organization (or department) hinges on having everyone at their desk from 8:30 am to 5:00 pm with no more than a 60 minute break for lunch. Can you also imagine the motivated (potentially younger) worker who feels they are more productive if they go the gym before work or on an extended lunch hour, but is more than happy to catch up on work in the evenings and on weekends?

The messiness comes from revealing the limitations of some of our core beliefs (for example, does punctuality really indicate productivity?). If you can understand and question some of the relevant logical links, you can start to better align the important elements of performance. Decisions become clearer, and less time and energy are spent on trying to affect change.

We have developed a short diagnostic to gather some insights into how this is currently working for you. Here is an external link to a questionnaire. (This should take 5 or 6 minutes (more if you answer the optional question).)

If you are interested in being kept in our loop, please add your e-mail address at the end. Look for updates at measureofsuccess.ca.

NOTE: This article originally appeared in the June 2013 newsletter of the Canadian Supply Chain Sector Council (supplychaincanada.org).