Collaborative approach to decision making; a leadership imperative

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THE battle of Gettysburg was the biggest fight ever in the western hemisphere and a critical turning point in the American Civil War. The second day of the battle, July 2, 1863, was one of the bloodiest in American history, with approximately 20 000 combined casualties (killed, wounded, missing, or captured). As evening slowly gave way to night at the end of that terrible day, General George Gordon Meade, commander of the Union Army of the Potomac, called his entire leadership to his headquarters for a council of war. Meade knew in his own mind the outcome he desired on the battle’s third day, but he also wanted to hear from his commanders and to achieve consensus regarding the Union strategy for the endgame. Meade instinctively understood the critical need, at this dramatic moment in time, to collaborate effectively in decision-making.

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Implication of collaboration in business

What can modern-day business leaders learn from the historical example of Meade’s collaborative decision-making?

First, Meade recognised the criticality of pulling his team together for a face-to-face consultation. Sometimes, there is simply no substitute for a meeting in person, and skilled leaders understand precisely when there is a need to bring everyone into the same room. Ironically, Meade’s adversary General Lee did not gather his commanding generals together for a war council at any point during the battle, and a serious lack of coordination resulted.

Power of listening in collaboration

Next, Meade initiated a process that was perceived by all of the participants as fair. While it is true that Meade had already indicated to higher command his preference for remaining in place, he did not disclose his point of view to those reporting to him. Instead, he listened quietly and respectfully with genuine interest to what the others had to say. Each person had a chance to weigh in to the discussion and to vote on a particular outcome. When the members of a team feel that they have been given ample opportunity to express their points of view and to influence their leader, even if they disagree with the final decision, they are much more inclined to buy into the ultimate direction.

Clarity of Purpose

Finally, Meade’s council of war provided absolute clarity to every individual involved as to what was expected of him for the next day. The fact that the decisions made were unanimous helped in achieving this effect.

Even if there had been disagreement, the rationale for the chosen decision was clear and unambiguous.

On the morning of July 3, after the famous meeting but before the decisive combat that would bring victory to his forces, Meade penned a hurried letter to his wife: “Dearest love, All (is) well and going on well with the army. We had a great fight yesterday, the enemy attacking and we completely repulsing them — both armies shattered…. Army in fine spirits and every one determined to do or die.” This determination to defeat the Confederate enemy at all costs was in large part achieved as a result of George Meade’s intuitive comprehension of the importance of effective collaboration when making a critical decision.

Collaboration at the workplace

One of my most popular speaking topics is “Harnessing the Power of Collaboration.” The topic’s popularity stems from corporate clients around the world realising that “silo mentality” and knowledge hoarding behaviours are wasting the kind of collective brainpower that could save their organisation billions, or lead to the discovery of a revolutionary new process or product, or, in the current economic climate, help keep their company afloat when others are sinking!

And it is not just corporate profits that suffer when collaboration is low: the workforce loses something too. Individuals lose the opportunity to work in the kind of inclusive environment that energises teams, releases creativity and makes working together both productive and joyful.

Collaboration is a leadership issue

In trying to capture and communicate the cumulative wisdom of a workforce, the public and private sectors have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in portals, software, and intranets. But collaboration is more than the technology that supports it, and even more than a business strategy aimed at optimising an organisation’s experience and expertise. Collaboration is, first and foremost, a change in attitude and behavior of people throughout an organization. Successful collaboration is a leadership issue.

Organisational change

Over the past 15 years, I have worked with a variety of very talented leaders, and one thing I know for sure: Regardless of how creative, smart and savvy a leader may be, he or she cannot transform an organisation, a department or a team without the brain power and commitment of others. Whether the change involves creating new products, services, processes – or a total reinvention of how the organisation must look, operate, and position itself for the future – success dictates that the individuals impacted by change be involved in the change from the very beginning.

Visioning is a team sport.

Today’s most successful leaders guide their organisations not through command and control, but through a shared purpose and vision. If the future vision belongs only to top management, it will never be an effective motivator for the workforce. The power of a vision comes truly into play only when the employees themselves have had some part in its creation.

Relationships are key

The outcome of any collaborative effort is dependent upon well-developed personal relationships among participants. Not allowing time for this can be a costly mistake.

Mandeya is an Executive coach, Trainer in Human Capital development and Corporate education, a certified leadership and professional development practitioner and founder of the Leadership Institute for Research and Development (LiRD). — robert@lird.co.zw, info@lird.co.zw or +263 772 466 925.

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