Rigorous choices

When organisations go through a period of fundamental change, complaints are often heard about internal communication. Information lacks clarity, people don’t get the big picture, questions remain unanswered.

The main cause for such complaints appears to be rooted in the decision-making process preceding communication rather than communication itself. I often find that executive teams are quite satisfied with the results of a decision-making process while they have, in fact, not made a single choice.

This is an interesting phenomenon. Do these managers lack the necessary skills to make a good decision? I don’t think so, because then it would not be such a common phenomenon. Those who regularly witness executive teams at work can tell you what really goes on: it is rarely in the interest of the individual team members to make clear-cut choices. The aim of their efforts and behaviours in the team is to keep a maximum amount of freedom to take their own decisions. And, being a good colleague, they feel the others should have the same freedom. Therefore team meetings are often used only to discuss ‘border conflicts’ that affect the immediate interests of several of its members. And the aim is to come out with a formulation that ‘everyone can get away with.’ What follows, in many cases, is bad communication.

Is a managing board actually a team?

As communication professionals we tend to think that a managing board should really function as a team that provides ‘unified leadership’ to the organisation. One may wonder if this view is shared by the people involved. Many boards are actually not set up to function as a team. Virtually all studies on team effectiveness show the importance of two factors: the team should consist of people who complement each other in terms of style and skills, and they should be sharing a clearly defined common goal. Many factors play a role in the composition of an executive team, but complementary styles and skills are usually not among them. As for the common goal, in most organisations executives are primarily held accountable for their individual performance objectives. So executive teams are not really teams. They are really platforms where representatives of the various departments get together to discuss issues they cannot solve individually.

In many cases this actually works well as a model to manage an organisation. Things get tricky when the organisation finds itself at a crossroads and fundamental change is required to stay successful. When that happens it is essential that the team at the top is really aligned behind a clearly defined vision, and has the nerve to make rigorous choices and decisively implement them. In our practice, creating alignment at the top appears to be the most underestimated step in any change process. If this is done successfully, the impact is immediately felt in all corners of the organisation.