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.