Restructuring, Innovation, & The Problem of Agreement

Restructuring has become a common practice in business across the globe. In 2014 alone, dozens and dozens of companies in the Fortune 500 announced restructurings and major layoffs. Most will fall victim to hidden flawed restructuring assumptions that will cost them the very things they need to stimulate growth and get back on track. But there’s another hidden issue that will subvert their best efforts too: agreement.

Most everyone knows that unresolved conflict can lead to organizational dysfunction and poorer performance. That’s true both personally and professionally. And it’s why many restructuring initiatives include at least some efforts to redefine roles and responsibilities (e.g., the RACI matrix). But there’s also a flipside. Poorly managed agreement can be just as dysfunctional. Here’s why and why post-restructuring environments are particularly susceptible to this dysfunctional ‘agreement syndrome’.

In 1988, Jerry B. Harvey, a professor of management science at George Washington University, published a famous article entitled The Abilene Paradox: The Management of Agreement. In that article he told the story of a group of people who collectively decided to leave the comfort of their front porch and take an onerous trip through heat and dust to Abilene to have an unsatisfying dinner together; counter to the personal preferences of all the members of the group.

Harvey says in the article, “Organizations frequently take actions in contradiction to what they really want to do and therefore defeat the very purposes they are trying to achieve.” It’s easy to see why this might happen in a post-restructuring environment. An employee’s natural reaction is to minimize or avoid conflict in order to be seen as “on board”, “a good team player” and “someone to keep around”. As a result, instead of communicating what they really think about any given situation, employees “agree” and run the risk of taking the ‘Road to Abilene’.

Conflict is not only inevitable but managing it effectively is essential to healthy collaboration, innovation, and growth. And 80% of senior executives in a 2005 McKinsey survey agree (though only 25% thought of themselves as good at it). In fact, one study found that organizations that champion innovation were 5 times as likely to embrace heated-conflict.

Conflict avoidance or the desire for a collegial atmosphere can be anathema to a healthy culture of innovation: the very thing a business needs to turn things around and get growing again. But for lack of strategies and tools, very few companies proactively manage the development of a new, healthy culture that manages both conflict and agreement effectively. We developed ThinkPoints™ to respond to this business need. Comment and let me know what you think.