Our Look at “The Right Fight: How Great Leaders Use Healthy Confrontation to Drive Performance, Innovation, and Value” by Saj-Nicole Joni and Damon Beyer, with Commentary by Richard Frost, CEO, The Winnipeg Foundation

Oct 31, 2011 | Chamber News

Basic Premise:

The standard view puts all the emphasis on alignment:

“Create enough alignment around a common purpose and you can solve even the most difficult challenges.”

Problem: when you need to innovate on a grand scale or to change essential aspects of an organization or group, agreement is only half the answer.

“… if you want to succeed in an age of ever-increasing complexity you have to establish clear vision, set strategy, and build alignment. Then you need to systematically orchestrate right fights – and fight them right.”

‘Right fights’ create break-through performance, deliver lasting innovation, groom the next generation of leaders and create an effective system of checks and balances.

Warning: fights are dangerous; they can be destructively political, and they can inspire sabotage due to bruised egos or dirty fighting when an ‘ends justify the means’ mentality sinks in. Picking the right fights helps to avoid this.  

Learn to Pick the Right Fights: 

1. Make it Material (something worthwhile, something that matters – something where everyone knows the game is worth the candle)

Does it matter – the value test: Make it about concrete value, i.e. either real cost advantage, real differentiation from the competition, or real reduction in risk.

Does it matter – the thinking test: Right fights involve exponential out-of the-box thinking that involve material trade-offs and innovative thinking from multiple parts of the organization. If it is a routine matter or requires specialized expertise that is a phone call away, it is not the domain of a right fight.

Does it matter – the change test: A right fight results in a noticeable and sustainable difference in the way an organization works. 

2. Focus on the future, not the past or rehashing power struggles or apportioning blame (move beyond blame to possibilities) 

The Possibility Test: right fights don’t focus on the past; they focus on what is possible and how to make it happen. They should answer one of:

  • How do we avoid the mistakes of the past and improve current circumstances?
  • Which course of action creates greater possibility for success?
  • What is the best way to turn a future vision into reality?

The Compelling Test: does the possibility:

  • Require significant innovations, some of which may not be invented yet? Or
  • Create a future vision that is exciting enough to get people to take real risks? Or
  • Promise a future that is so much better than today that people are willing to change?

The Uncertainty Test: does the solution:

  • Require you to respond to unpredictable, wild-card uncertainties like changes in regulation or dramatic shifts in the economy?
  • Demand response to competitive uncertainties: unexpected changes in customer preferences, disruptive changes in technologies, or channel shifts?
  • Present difficult choices where the best way forward is not clear?

3. Pursue a noble purpose (people need to commit their integrity and passion to something bigger than the bottom line)

The Intangibility Test: does the challenge:

  • Speak to more than making money?
  • Reflect a larger cause that is central to your organization’s mission statement or purpose?
  • Flow directly from the value of the organization? 

The Energizing Test: will the process of solving the challenge:

  • Motivate people in your group or organization to go above and beyond their ordinary responsibilities?
  • Translate into statements or actions that can be embraced by employees from the top to the bottom of the organization?
  • Seem important enough that people are willing to dissent?
  • Encourage people to put aside their differences and individual priorities in order to create a better outcome for the organization as a whole?
  • Instill pride throughout the organization?

The Respect Test: will the solution

  • Win respect and admiration from stakeholders outside the organization?
  • Produce outcomes that the average worker will be willing to bring up in conversations with friends and neighbors?
  • Generate positive external press or recognition for the group?
  • Encourage people outside the organization to support your efforts no matter how difficult or painful they may be?
  • Win the respect of your opponents or competitors?

Learn to Fight Right Fights Right: 

4. Make it sport, not war (have rules and play by them, good leaders are referees, opposing sides should be reasonably matched, victory is not permanent and defeat is never total)

There has to be rules:

“One of the key tasks for leadership in a right fight is to define the parameters so everyone involved understands how to participate and what it takes to win.”

A referee is needed:

“The role of the referee is critical in a right fight. It’s also one of the hardest things for senior leaders to do well. In most conflicts, leaders have a favorite idea going in or a preference for one side over another. But to get positive results and to ensure the fight starts right leaders have to set up the rules and referee the competition without regard to personal preferences.”

Everybody wins:

“… all involved have to believe that they will live to fight another day. The losing side should always leave with something – even if it’s just an invitation to come back later for a rematch.”

5. Structure formally but work informally (set up the fight in your organizational structure, but work out tensions through informal networks)

Dissent and productive tension will come from imperfect alignment of incentives and perspectives within your organization. It is, however, a fine balance:

  • If everyone’s incentives are perfectly aligned, there is likely not much room for productive debate
  • Too much misalignment and you have chaos with no common goals or objectives

Structure Formally and Exploit the Gaps: is there imperfect alignment?

  • Do different parts of the group or team have different structural interests or agendas?
  • Are incentives compatible but distinct enough to give each interest a specific objective or measure to champion?
  • Do the different roles on the team create advocacy for certain positions or points of view?
  • Are differences in individual priorities likely to enhance or hinder debate?
  • Are there explicit tensions in the group that have to be managed across different leaders or subgroups?
  • Is there a clear goal but differing perspectives on how best to achieve the goal?

Work Informally and Rely on Relationships: can you count on people?

  • Will members of the group rely on their influence with their peers as well as their authority to get things done?
  • Do the members of the group have professional respect for each other?
  • Are there sufficient levels of personal trust in the group to ensure that individuals will deliver on their commitments and behave with integrity?
  • Will opinion leaders and influence brokers throughout the organization test perspectives up and down the hierarchy?
  • Will individuals deal with conflict openly and productively, and trust that their peers will do the same?

Work Informally and Insist on Ideas: how do you know what you know?

  • Are you sure you have access to unfiltered information? Do you seek out second and third opinions?
  • Can you tap into networks of expertise that exist within and outside your group and organizations?
  • Will good ideas from the bottom of the organization get a fair hearing before the hierocracy surprises them?
  • Are you creating a safe space to explore new ways of approaching issues or problems, no matter how farfetched they may seem?

6. Turn pain into gain (people matter – everybody should grow in a right fight, even if they don’t win)

“Turning pain into gain requires leaders to relate to their team members as individuals and to figure out what creates energy, stretches skills, and honors outcomes for each of them.”

  • Put passions to work: over the long term, personal motivation has to come from the work itself.
  • People prefer a boss who challenges them to one who sets low expectations.
  • Honour all outcomes. 

Find out more at http://rightfightbook.com/ 


Rick Frost

Richard Frost is Chief Executive Officer of The Winnipeg Foundation. Canada’s first community foundation, The Winnipeg Foundation was established in 1921. Today it is the secondlargest community foundation in Canada, with more than 2,200 endowment funds established by people from all walks of life. Donors to the Foundation share a commitment to the Foundation’s vision of a Winnipeg where community life flourishes.

During my time as Chief Commissioner of the City, I was invited by Hubert Kleysen to attend a workplace seminar for his employees held at his trucking “headquarters” then located at 2100 McGillivray Boulevard. His company was very focused on systems thinking and as I recall, the theme of the training was that management’s main job is the optimization of the system over which they had responsibility.

The substance was how best this could be accomplished. When I was asked by the Chambers to provide some “reflections” on The Right Fight, I could not help but think of those three days spent at Kleysen’s where the entire focus was on win-win scenarios.

In contrast, the authors of this book argue that innovation is most likely when management orchestrates the right fights. They acknowledge that a clear vision and strategy – an alignment in purpose – is fundamental to business success. However, to get breakthrough performance and to stretch an organization to its full capacity, they believe management needs to create controlled competition. Tension releases creative energy if it is harnessed in a constructive way.

Adversary theory is not new. Picture two lawyers arguing a case each offering evidence that supports one outcome or another. The process is intended to generate the truth. In the case of the right fights, the authors set out a wide range of guidelines and suggestions all intended to build a positive framework in which opposing sides can argue their case. “One of the key tasks for leadership in a right fight is to define the parameters so everyone involved understands how to participate and what it takes to win.” (p. 129). “As long as unity around the goal is clear, teams can have and should have big disagreements about tactics, ways of overcoming obstacles, and other actions along their way to that goal.” (p. 135) “In the right fight, victory is never permanent and defeat is never total. The losing side should always leave with something — even if it’s just an invitation to come back later for a rematch.” (p. 146)

I think there is always an element of truth in any management theory and in that respect, this book offers some interesting insights. But for me, the basic premise is not sound.

When people work together, the process of interaction embellishes the contribution that anyone, as an individual, might make. Intentionally orchestrating fights within an organization seems incredibly wasteful first because it demands duplication of effort as each side determines how best to overcome the obstacles, and second, because it has to leave a destructive residue. If there is some positive element to tension, it can be more than offset by the fear, anxiety and uncertainty that must inevitably accompany win-lose situations.

At The Winnipeg Foundation, we call our magazine Working Together and collaboration is at the root of everything we do. The underlying strength of a community foundation is the pooling of resources — an acceptance that what we cannot do as individuals, we can do as a community. In every neighbourhood group and in every charity, there are passionate people dedicated to a cause and our job, through our grants, is to empower that passion. These same people work in businesses right across the city and to get their best performance, I would not focus on creating the right fights.

A version of this article originally appeared in the 2011 First Quarter edition of the Manitoba Focus Magazine. Click here to access that issue.

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