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The Right Fight

By Saj-Nicole Joni and Damon Beyer

Harper Business, 234 pages, $34.99

Alignment equals good. Conflict equals bad.

That formula is universally subscribed to by executives, who want their employees all working together, heading in the same direction like rowers in a fast-moving shell. But consultants Saj-Nicole Joni and Damon Beyer say that is misguided. When you need to innovate on a grand scale or revolutionize certain aspects of your organization, you need a healthy dose of dissent.

You must arrange - and this will scare many executives - a convenient fight. Leaders must encourage debate, so that ideas needing assessment can have a healthy airing and be refined before the organization moves ahead, once again aligned in purpose. "You need to systematically orchestrate right fights - and fight them right," they observe in The Right Fight.

The consultants offer six principles to guide you in picking your battles. The first three principles help to recognize the right fights, distinguishing them from mere political infighting. After you pick the right fight, you have to make sure it's fought in the right way. Again, there are three principles to heed.

Make it material

The right fight should be something worth fighting about. "Right fights are about the big things, things that have the potential to change the performance and success of the organization and energize its people," the authors stress. The right fight should create significant value, require the integration of multiple perspectives in deciding how to move forward, and change the way work gets done in the organization.

Focus on the future, not the past

Leadership teams spend about 85 per cent of their time in the past, trying to figure out what went wrong, dissecting what went well, assigning blame or determining whose work deserves recognition, the authors estimate. Instead, they should be preoccupied with the future.

Right fights speak to what is possible. They grapple with a compelling future, a significant improvement on today's reality. They probe uncertainty, when the external environment is highly unstable or, alternatively, when it is fairly clear but potentially threatening and the best way forward seems cloudy.

Pursue a noble purpose

The fight must transcend money and be about something useful to the world that your organization can provide. Wal-Mart, the authors note, is famed for penny-pinching. The noble purpose behind its strategy, however, is not miserly greed but serving consumers by providing them low-priced goods, they say. The Dove Campaign For Real Beauty was intended to spark sales for that company's soap, but behind it was a focus on women's self-esteem.

The noble purpose you pursue must energize people, motivating them to go above and beyond in their pursuit of that objective. It must generate respect from others.

Make it sport, not war

Business fights can be vigorous, if not vicious at times. So smart leaders establish themselves as referees to ensure things don't get out of hand. "There should be rules for the fight and the rules shouldn't change during the conflict. And opposing sides should be reasonably matched," the consultants advise.

The participants must believe the contest is fair, and accept the outcome. As in sports, everyone needs to win occasionally. In a couple of examples in the book, leaders were careful to ensure the manager who was on the losing side in a right fight got a promotion, to emphasize the individual was still valued. "The losing side should always leave with something - even if it's just an invitation to come back later for a rematch," they write.

Structure formally but work informally

The right fight takes place through the formal organizational structure, as individuals or units vie for the supremacy of their ideas, but the tensions created by the fight must be handled through the informal relationships and networks in the organization.

Leaders must identify and exploit structural gaps in the organization. The leader must build trust, and reach out to get ideas from as many people as possible.

Turn pain into gain

The tension created by the fight can be painful for the organization, so the leader must focus on using the battle to energize staff and stretch skills. "A hallmark of right fights is that, when they are orchestrated well, everyone who participates benefits from the outcome - even the losers. It's the leader's job to make the gains explicit, especially at key moments when losers are coming to terms with their loss," they note.

Most of us can remember right fights that helped our organizations surge ahead. Avoiding right fights, on the other hand, can be deadly: The consultants point, as an example, to General Motors' inability to come up with a realistic labour agreement, deal with its aging manufacturing structure or resist the temporary succour of large vehicles for the long-term security of more fuel-efficient vehicles.

The book's premise, therefore, makes sense, and it offers a lot of insight into how to move from an obsession with alignment to picking the right fights and making sure they are fought in the right way.

* * *

In Addition: In Bringing Out The Best In Everyone You Coach (McGraw-Hill, 264 pages, $30.95), trainer Ginger Lapid-Bogda explains the nine different personality traits of what is known as the Enneagram system, and shows how to use that knowledge for mentoring or coaching The book can be quite complex and turgid, as she goes into the details of each personality, what questions to ask, and what issues to be alert to. The casual reader would probably find the book of minimal value, but full-time coaches or mentors struggling with a protégé might find it a useful reference.

Just In: In Marketing In The Age Of Google (John Wiley, 242 pages, $30.95), consultant Vanessa Fox argues that your search engine strategy should actually be your business strategy, rather than simply a case of boosting page ranking.

Edward Tse, chairman of Booz and Co.'s China practice, offers a framework for dealing with that country's fast-growing economy in The China Strategy (Basic, 247 pages, $33.95).

In The Relational Leader (Course Technology, 240 pages, $18), consultant Frank McIntosh offers advice on motivating employees and strengthening profits.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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