The Power in Breadth

By Ron Carucci

Tuesday, February 11th 2014

Ever feel like the same old problems keep rearing their ugly heads again, and again?

Check your mental list of the problems you’re wrestling with. How many of the issues on that list do you believe you’ve addressed at least once before? Most organizations have a revolving door of repeat issues that are frequently addressed but never fully resolved: a lack of means to fill unexpected voids, cost overruns, missed monthly forecasts. These are just a few ongoing challenges for businesses. When these problems occur (and reoccur), the typical pattern is to gather the usual suspects, download details of the issue and hypothesized causes, levy blame and assign marching orders to go fix the problem.

So with clear orders to fix the problem, why do these issues persist? We believe it is because leaders often lack the skill or discipline of systemic problem solving. Leaders typically define the problem through the lens of their own experience and expertise, as well as the confines of their function or business. It is within these confines that they attempt to act without full appreciation of the potential difficulties and added complexity they may create across the broader system. Their insular view and lack of peripheral vision ignores the critical seams of the organization.

One client of ours struggled for years to consistently meet customer satisfaction expectations.  In comparative rankings they were generally at or near the bottom of the list. Sales, an impenetrable fortress, traded on the strength of personal relationships with key individuals.  Customer Marketing, a newer and less-understood function, reported up separately from Sales and the brand businesses. When quarterly forecasts were missed again, Sales retrenched to fix a pricing issue, Customer Marketing focused on creating better content, and Supply Chain just tried to stay ahead of last-minute shifts in priorities. When all of their well-intentioned solutions showed up at retail, they rarely, if ever, improved customer satisfaction. Absent a shared, holistic picture of the issues and agreement on a systemic solution, the company’s valuable, limited resources were wasted on well-intended but often disjointed or competing solutions. This drove satisfaction down on both sides of the street.

In contrast, our recent research shows that a defining characteristic associated with exemplary executives is that they consciously seek to understand the organization as a whole. They then actively exploit that knowledge to manage complexity and create value. Instead of working out solutions in isolation, exceptional executives are drawn to explore opportunity and solutions at the points of divisional intersections – the seams – where there is tremendous potential for value to be created or destroyed. Their ability to rise above organizational complexity allows them to conceive and execute solutions that benefit the whole through the results they deliver. We call this having breadth in perspective.

A challenge in developing breadth lies in the conditioning and reinforcing messages leaders receive during formative but more operationally focused roles. Individualism is often reinforced by the narrow focus of these roles and the rewarded behaviors. Consequently, when you ascend quickly to more strategic roles, your ability to see and act broadly is nascent or non-existent. A fairly recent HBR article titled “The New Path to the C-Suite” noted that “Technical skills are merely a starting point, the bare minimum. To thrive as a C-level executive, an individual needs to be a good communicator, a collaborator, and a strategic thinker - and we think the trend toward a general business orientation over a functional orientation will continue. A CEO would now count on a CIO, for instance, to weigh in on a discussion about expansion into a new market and how the firm’s systems could support that expansion. What would the challenges be? What would be the long-term impact of the IT expenditures required to support the expansion? The CIO would be expected to provide answers to those questions.”

Increasing complexity is a factor that you must contend with as you assume roles of greater responsibility, and the antidote is not to simplify things, because you really can’t. The world is complex. The business environment is complex. Complexity is a constant factor of organizational life best managed by consistently elevating your view so that the whole picture is clearly revealed. From this bird’s-eye vantage point you can more easily assess and manage the interplay of organizational divisions in service of enterprise objectives.

In the absence of breadth you will be constrained by narrow views of issues and opportunities. Greater power and impact result from an increased facility to sort through the barrage of information and opportunities that come your way, separating the relevant from the irrelevant, and determining with greater confidence if and how your organization must respond and evolve. Leaders who capitalize on the power in breadth understand where and how value is created or destroyed, and know how to optimally configure – or reconfigure – the organization’s assets to execute strategy and achieve greater returns for shareholders.


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