Organize your way out of a paper bag
Book review of: "Getting it Done: How to Lead When You're Not in Charge," by Roger Fisher and Alan Sharp
January 15, 1999
by Bill Rosenblatt
(IDG) -- How many of us will freely admit that we read inspirational "self-help" books? Like many of you, I have shunned such things, too proud to be told how to prioritize my life and not wanting to submerge my individuality in someone else's regimen of prescribed interpersonal relationship techniques. But then I got involved with one such book as its editor. This made me curious about the genre, and I started to peruse that section of my local cafe-equipped book superstore to see what the competition might be. I found a lot of complete sludge, including a book called How to Become CEO, complete with the explanation that CEO stands for "chief executive officer."
One title, however, I could not resist: Getting It Done: How to Lead When You're Not in Charge. That struck a chord, as I'm betting it does for those of you who work in one of the many flat, team-oriented organizations endemic to the IT industry. I noticed that one of the authors was Roger Fisher, coauthor of Getting to Yes, the classic book on negotiation skills.
The holidays seem to be a dry time for the type of books I normally review; maybe the big trade publishers are instead concentrating on cookbooks, coffee-table art books, and other gift ideas for the season. I decided to take the plunge and review Getting It Done, which turned out to be a fine, pragmatic distillation of several principles that will help you exert influence in your organization -- even if you don't have the authority to order people around. It doesn't offer a cure-all for the problems that result from the lack of effective leadership in technology companies, but it does outline some skills you can learn quickly in order to improve your immediate job environment.
Leadership by vacuum
I've heard it said that many large high-tech companies have a policy of "leadership by vacuum." This means that instead of imposing lots of management structure on the company, leadership positions are intentionally omitted in key areas so that everyday employees will self-organize to move the business forward. As the theory goes, employees who do the "real work" and are close to customers know best what needs to be done, and must have the freedom to do it.
Whether leadership by vacuum is a company's explicit policy, or it simply has no leadership at all is often up for debate. (I can see the scowl forming on your face already.) Whatever the case at your company, it's a good bet that your management isn't exactly clonking you over the head with the message that they want you to provide leadership by self-organizing. In that case, you have no choice but to assert the type of leadership advocated in this book. This is true whether your objective is to be promoted -- which, in today's world, won't happen until after you've demonstrated leadership -- or simply to feel the satisfaction of working in an environment where things get done.
Lateral leadership is the name Fisher and his coauthor, management consultant Alan Sharp, give to the skills they teach in Getting It Done. The book provides what amounts to a five-by-three matrix of skills necessary to lateral leadership and a step-by-step process for promulgating those skills to others in any group you're trying to lead.
The five skills, when practiced by a team, will move an organization forward. First you'll need to define a purpose for what you're asking others to spend time doing and attach to that purpose a set of goals by which to achieve it. The goals should be short-term (by next week), medium-term (in six months), and long-term (the ultimate purpose of the project). The long-term goal -- accomplishing the overall purpose of the project -- should inspire the team. Short-term and medium-term goals should also be defined in order to provide a sense of progress along the way.
The second skill is to learn to think systematically, to proceed from facts through diagnosis to making decisions about what to do next. Third is learning itself, a feedback loop in which you think, do, and review. Fourth is engagement, making sure everyone has interesting and challenging tasks in the project. And the fifth skill is feedback, learning to express appreciation and offer constructive criticism.
Getting each of these skills adopted by your entire group is a three-step process. The first step is to adopt the skill yourself. Second is to promote a vision to the team of jointly using the skill. Third is to lead the team in practicing that skill.
Small- and large-scale leadership
On the surface, these techniques make a lot of sense. However, the book could be improved (as could its value for the money -- 205 pages of relatively large type is pretty meager for $23) with many more examples of lateral leadership and other behaviors the authors want to instill. There are a few small examples. Some are from the authors' personal experiences, but the majority are from the legal profession, which isn't surprising given Fisher's background as a Harvard Law School professor. Also, the focus is almost entirely on the micro-level details of interpersonal relationships -- what to say and not say to your colleagues -- rather than on the big-picture issues of self-organizing to move a company forward.
"Getting it done" is indeed a central problem in today's technology-based companies, many of which have chosen to flatten their organizational model by doing without several layers of management and instead empowering front-line people to make decisions. In older, more hierarchical structures, things got done because some management-type ordered them done, but often these were the wrong things, because management often was out of touch with customers' needs. In newer organizations, things do get done at the local level, but it's very difficult for the organization as a whole to make changes and move forward.
A typical manifestation of this problem in the IT industry occurs when a vendor tries to do business development (that is, take initiatives to move the company into new markets) locally in the field rather than centrally as part of an overall strategy. Let's say a sales rep for a technology vendor -- call him Bob -- has a big, important customer. Bob is empowered to get things done without going through umpteen levels of bureaucratic approval, but only if those things are small and locally actionable. For example, in order to close a deal, Bob could sweeten the discount or throw in some technical services without too much trouble.
But now assume that Bob is talking to his customer about a shared vision that involves an entirely new way of using the vendor's products. Implementing the vision requires the vendor to make an investment of money or engineering skills, and the project will take some time to complete. Bob is convinced that this will open up a whole new market for the company -- that the proposed solution is applicable at every company in his customer's industry. In other words, this situation has gone beyond a simple sales deal to become a business development initiative.
Bob sets about trying to convince his local sales territory management to support the investment. The local management, interested only in whether they will make their own sales goal for the quarter, declines. Next Bob tries to get "corporate" interested in the deal. "Corporate," in most large technology companies, is a small group of people who are overwhelmed with requests like these from all over the place and have nowhere near sufficient resources to pursue them. As a result, Bob's deal stands an excellent chance of going nowhere.
It is vitally necessary for any vendor to grow its business by finding new markets, but if the above scenario is typical, the odds of this happening are low indeed. Vendors who operate this way will get into new markets largely by accident: for example, if some technological innovation coming out of corporate engineering happens to fill a market need, or if customers find new uses for the vendor's products without any help from the vendor.
It's possible that the techniques discussed in Getting It Done could be applied on a broad scale within a technology organization to avoid this particular problem and do business development successfully from the field. Unfortunately, the book has very few examples that show how lateral leadership can work on that scale.
The dreaded mission statement
One example on a larger scale involves a young lawyer at a big firm. The lawyer is putting in long hours and, without a sense of purpose behind his work, he is getting demoralized. The firm has a typically open-ended, almost Dilbert-like mission statement that mentions "excellence," "client service," and so on, proudly posted in the office lobby. Fisher and Sharp's main point about this example is that the firm's mission statement serves little purpose other than to look impressive to clients when they enter the firm's offices. It is too vague to serve as a rallying point for the firm's employees.
Furthermore, the lawyer finds that the three senior partners who control the firm, far from working toward some common purpose, are running their respective parts of the business according to three very different, incompatible agendas. So he tries to use the mission statement as the basis on which to draw the three senior partners into a meeting to discuss common goals of the firm. His remarks to each of the senior partners, to entice them into the meeting, could be fairly described as sucking up: "Maybe you, in your vastly superior wisdom and experience, can help me understand our mission statement in relation to the daily work that worthless grunts like me are doing," is the gist of it. The result of this toadying? Not much happens and the young lawyer ends up leaving the firm.
In my own experience, I have found that techniques like lateral leadership work well as long as senior management isn't involved. More often than not, people actually want someone to develop project plans, take the reins, get everyone together, tell each person what his or her role in the plan is, and move things forward. Worker bees often welcome leadership from peers, as long as it's presented in a tactful way that respects everyone's contributions.
Senior management, on the other hand, tends to be too busy with their own political agendas to pay attention to issues on this level. They will often be interested only when a project is over and successful. They may also be interested if you go to them with a complete project plan, show buy-in from all other people on the project team, demonstrate return on investment, and say, "All we need is x to get the project done," where x is a manageable, deliverable amount of money or other resources. In other words, if you make it easy for them to contribute, you increase the odds that they'll contribute. Try to involve them in long, drawn-out consensus-building processes, however, and you're sunk. Although Getting It Done shows a few small examples of regular Joes and Josephines influencing senior management, I don't believe it works. Maybe I'm just not good enough at sucking up.
On the whole, however, Getting It Done will show you how to make yourself known as someone who is worthy of respect as a leader. If you establish such a reputation for yourself, you will be more easily able to step into the driver's seat when it's time to get a new project off and running. A sequel to this book, showing the potential big-picture effects of lateral leadership on today's large, flat organizations would be welcome.
Title: Getting It Done: How to Lead When You're Not in Charge
Bill Rosenblatt is market development manager for media and publishing industries at Sun Microsystems Inc.
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