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Book Review: The New How: Creating Business Solutions Through Collaborative Strategy by Nilofer Merchant

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How many times have you sat in a meeting, knowing you havd a great idea to share, but felt uncomfortable about speaking up? Or have you, as a project manager, found it difficult to strategize with your team members? Nilofer Merchant's The New How: Creating Business Solutions Through Collaborative Strategy addresses these common problems, thoroughly explaining how the term "strategy" involves an active process, with everyone participating equally.

Merchant divides the book into three general sections: defining what it means to be collaborative; introducing the "Quest" process for collaborative strategy; and applying this method in a corporate setting. The most useful parts of the text are Merchant's definitions of "strategy" and "air sandwich." Strategy, she posits, often functions as just a noun — in other words, a plan's execution. Instead, it should be a verb, an active process that includes thinking about and planning the execution. The strategy creation process, she states, should "engage the team, identify the key interdependent tasks that must be done, find the weak spots and make changes, and get buy-in and accountability. All this needs to happen before execution" (p. 5). Companies often ignore the how of strategy, instead focusing on the end result.

This neglect often leads to an "air sandwich," or a disconnect between executives and employees. Often the boardroom executives devise a strategy with no other input, then expect the teams to execute the plan. The middle of the sandwich, Merchant suggests, lacks "the substance of the business — the debate of options, the understanding of capabilities, sharing of the underlying assumptions, the identification of risks, issues that need to be tracked, and all the other things that need to be tracked" (p. 14). The sandwich needs to be filled with "a set of understandings that would connect the vision of the direction to the reality" (p. 14).

In the first section, Merchant proposes that team members become "co-creators," fully active participants in creating a winning strategy. A leader must resist taking over, becoming what the author terms the "Chief of Answers" who disregards any other ideas. Instead, the team leader must recognize that strategy creation can be a messy process, filled with contradictions and possible disagreements. The collaborative leader's responsibilities include creating a safe environment for sharing ideas and facilitating the idea elimination process, helping the team whittle down ideas into workable ones.

The New How involves four steps in collaborative strategy, dubbed "Quest." Merchant details these phases in the second section: Question, or research the need or opportunity; Envision, or brainstorm ideas to address the issue; Select, or choose which solutions are most appropriate; and Take, or specify how the strategy should be executed. Merchant provides numerous examples for leaders and team members, demonstrating both parties' roles in each step. Each phase represents a step toward shared understanding of both the problem and strategy.

Merchant states that the first section involves ways of being, and the second discusses ways of doing. The final section of The New How, therefore, shows application, or the ways the collaborative strategy process works in corporate culture. She posits that six elements shape the culture: power, people, change, decision making, process, and idea generation (p. 229). Understanding how each principle works is essential for successfully implementing the collaborative strategy process. Two appendices provide specific methods for each Quest step, and a list of additional resources.

The New How could be very useful for training, as it includes numerous exercises that spark strategy creation. In addition, the book examines strategy creation from the executives, project managers, and team members' perspectives. Therefore, a variety of audiences could benefit from reading The New How, as it clearly describes each party's roles. Encouraging full participation over all three levels can be difficult, and Merchant tackles this challenge through numerous examples and case studies as well as her own experience. The illustrations accompanying the ideas, however, have an odd, hand-drawn quality that can be hard to decipher. More professional-looking graphics would have better communicated Merchant's concepts. In addition, an accompanying workbook would be useful, containing more specific exercises to further educated everyone as to their roles and responsibilities.

Small and large business owners and employees will find applicable topics in The New How, and Merchant's clear and thorough writing should spark ideas and encourage active collaboration on all levels, eliminating that "air sandwich."


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About Kit O'Toole

  • Thanks! Yes, I think lots of companies have “air sandwiches”!

  • Rosemary

    This sounds like a great book. I think we have an air sandwich going on at work right now. I’ll have to read the book to determine exactly how to fix that situation. Great review!