How does an organization create breakthrough performance time after time? How does a company develop meaningful innovations that work on many levels—for customers, for society, for the planet? How does a leader tell the difference between shortsighted thinking and real progress? The conventional answer is a version of "feel good" wisdom about getting everyone aligned. But it turns out that's not enough. After building trust and team-work, leading dissent, dissonance, and conflicts to productive and fair outcomes—that is, orchestrating "right fights" is what is required.
To innovate on a grand scale, or to change essential aspects of an organization, agreement is only half the answer. When the path ahead is not clear, productive dissent, diversity, and debate are the key difference between success and disaster.
Our most important ideas need to be refined in the fire of debate. No single perspective holds all the answers. Any single idea taken too far can become destructive. It is a leader's job to work within the debate to find the best way forward.
Done well, right fights bring out the best in us. Wrong fights—or right fights fought wrong—can distort noble purpose into massive failure, with innocent people getting hurt along the way. Right fights matter in the largest corporations, in small nonprofits, and in every organization in between. They matter in local communities, in the arts, in science, and on a global scale. They matter in times of growth and in times of recession.
What it really takes to lead is this: First, you have to establish clear vision, set strategy, and build alignment. Then you need to systematically orchestrate right fights—and fight them right.
But that's easier said than done. We've all seen destructive and wasteful fights about politics, self interest, and power. How do you know a right fight from a wrong one? And how to you ensure right fights are in fact, fought right?
The Right Fight Principles
How do you pick a right fight? There are three principles to systematically guide your choices:
- Make it material: Look for opportunities to create lasting value, identify new ways of doing business, and wrestle with complex challenges where there are no easy answers.
- Focus on the future: Center the debate on undiscovered possibility—not blame for the past. Explore uncertainty, and cast a future vision so compelling people are willing to break old habits to achieve it.
- Pursue a noble purpose: Link issues to values that matter, e.g. improving the lives of customers or changing the world for the better. Connect people up and down the hierarchy to a sense of purpose, stimulate imagination, and foster respect.
The Fight Right Principles
Once you have found an issue worth a right fight, how do you keep the conflict productive? The following three principles set the rules of engagement:
- Make it sport, not war: Define clear norms so everyone involved understands how to participate and what it takes to win. Referee the debate, and ensure opposing sides are reasonably matched.
- Structure formally, but work informally: Create clear advocacy positions in your organization, but mobilize your informal organization—networks, lynchpin players, and influencers—to ensure hierarchy doesn't win over the best ideas.
- Turn pain into gain: Even right fights create winners and losers, so communicate outcomes in a way that respects difference, risk taking, and hard effort. And make sure the losers grow from the debate.
In a tough world of incessant change, right fights cannot be overlooked. They create extraordinary value. They live at the heart of innovation. They lower risk. And they develop the leadership skills needed for the 21st century.
How will you choose? Do you have the courage to fight for what really matters? And the wisdom to stop fighting about things that don't ? Your choices touch the lives of those around you and many you will never know.
Saj-nicole Joni, Ph.D. is an internationally acclaimed business strategist and adviser to CEOs and top executives. She is the co-author of The Right Fight (Harper Collins, 2010) and The Third Opinion (Portfolio: 2004). A frequent speaker with a regular column featured on Forbes.com, her publications include the Harvard Business Review, Fast Company, and Strategy and Business. Saj-nicole is CEO of Cambridge International Group Ltd. and resides in Cambridge, MA.
Damon Beyer, is a senior executive advisor at Booz and Co, consulting to senior leaders around the globe on creating breakthrough organizational performance. A former Partner of Katzenbach LLC and McKinsey, Damon is the co-author of The Right Fight (Harper Collins, 2010) and his writing has appeared in The McKinsey Quarterly, Oil and Gas Journal of Finance, and The Harvard Business Review. He resides in Houston, TX.