Collaborative Strategy: A Q & A With Nilofer Merchant

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If nothing else, Nilofer Merchant’s The New How: Building Business Solutions Through Collaborative Strategy is ambitious. While many management gurus go on about the value of employee empowerment, Merchant spends an entire book showing not only how strategy with input from all employees is better than strategy from a few people at the top, but also how to make it happen.

Merchant takes for granted that every company is full of people with good ideas. What makes her book so intriguing is that she offers a way for companies to eliminate as many good ideas as possible so they can concentrate on the great ones.

Merchant is founder, chief strategist, and CEO of the Rubicon consultancy, and she is both strategic and practical. She identifies one of the major problems companies face — how to conceive of and execute better strategies — and creates a framework for solving that problem.

In direct, provocative language (sample section title: “Blaming People Only Works for So Long”), she lays out a new way to make every employee a strategist. MIT Sloan Management Review Executive Editor Jimmy Guterman talked to Merchant about her theory, how to put it into practice, and what an “air sandwich” is. (If you want more, read an excerpt from The New How.)

One of your basic arguments is that companies need to include employees at all levels in their strategy. That’s conventional wisdom, but few companies do that well. Why do companies who try to do that fail — and how can they succeed?

Companies fail to include employees for three reasons. First, companies often confuse collaboration with a “kumbaya” kind of approach as if how we feel about each other is the point. It’s not. It’s about co-laboring towards a goal. The only real reason we want to include employees at all levels is to let us create better solutions, better outcomes. To avoid this, we need to move beyond “inclusion” to a full engagement where you get ideas and demand that people engage the process of figuring out what should “we” do to win.

The second reason companies fail is that they include employees without engaging them in making decisions.

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Comments (9)
Bewildered Innovators – The Innovation Matrix « Innovation Leadership Network
[...] Commitment are not paying off is because the people in the firm are completely disengaged. This is Nilofer Merchant’s Air Sandwich at its worst. When you’re in this situation, you keep asking people for ideas, but you never [...]
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[...] rid of the air sandwich: firms in this category have what Nilofer Merchant calls an Air Sandwich: An Air Sandwich is a strategy that has clear vision and future direction on the top layer, [...]
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[...] called MurderBoarding ™, in Chapter 6 of The New How; which has been discussed by BusinessWeek, Sloan Management Review, and Forbes. She has also been profiled and featured in the [...]
David W.
I agree with the premises.  I love your fun use of tools like Murderboarding. 

I worry that companies are quickly able to copy products,  differientiate,  and capture market share quickly (if large corp.)   It seems that some level of confidentiality is needed.  A challenge in my mind is engaging everyone but keeping strategies and related products confidential.
Peter Rudd
Living in Academia is great, but sometime or other you gotta get out in the real world. One of your basic arguments is that companies need to include employees at all levels in their strategy. That’s misguided.

How is the part time greeter at Walmart going to influence when and how much to invest in China ?

Companies need to include employees at SOME levels in their strategy. That’s realistic.
Education Guidebook
I agree with the previous comment from LJUBICA BESKER-IVASOVIC and I'd like to add (based on 'One of your basic arguments is that companies need to include employees at all levels in their strategy.') that companies should also involve all employees in human resource management decision and explain the company's mission statement in order for everbody to work towards the same goal.
LJUBICA BESKER-IVASOVIC
Fresh and enthusiast vision,compliments.
Co-collaborative strategy will became the natural way of human interrelations when the basic value of Respect will  rapresent our duties.
There are to many oppressive attitudes  on this way (the receptor's inhibition on your neuron like  transmission-)-the milestone is the  Respect and The Golden Gate off Collaborative attitude will defend our Civilisation in decline.I know this will happen as well as you  do.Good luck to all of us!
donsweet
Nilofer, as a Gazelles coach I push my client companies to identify their top priority and align the company around that.  Sounds like murderboarding is another way of getting to that critical alignment and focus.  At the end of the day, execution is the key.  All the great ideas are useless unless our organizations execute them effectively.  Don
gillneo
The alignment is absolutely an affiliation of best practices for authoritative boxy qualitative decisions.
vibram fivefingers.