Listen, pal – you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem!

Vaughan Pierce,

February 24, 2017

Sound familiar? Hopefully not any more: management has changed enormously in the last 20 years or so, thankfully.

Here’s the Hanya guide to sharing responsibility, not dishing out blame – something we can all do more of Blunt words, tactlessly delivered: that was a typical workplace exchange in the unreconstructed decades towards the end of the twentieth century.

This was indeed a different epoch – one where employment diversity meant bringing in chaps who preferred the round-ball game, and a light lunch was only two pints. But things have changed since the
dark days of punk monetarism, testosterone fuelled de-industrialisation and turbo-charged ‘kick-ass’ management. Mind you, at least back then world leaders had some decorum and didn’t spend their time boasting and blaming like some deluded fifth former. But we now know, even if he doesn’t: blaming others all the time just doesn’t work. It’s demotivating, it’s demoralising, and it’s damaging to everyone in a relationship.

Much of Hanya Partners’ work is with clients looking to fix their broken outsourcing relationships. With those, we invariably find that unless both parties recognise that they are part of the problem, they won’t arrive at a satisfactory solution. Getting this back on track is simple… but it’s not easy.

Moving beyond blame is the first step. High-stakes business relationships, by their very nature, carry a lot of emotional baggage. Careers are at risk, managers may be suffering daily criticism from their internal customers, suppliers may be losing money. But good leaders rise above the emotional noise, shift away from obsessing about who might be at fault, and focus on what needs to happen to generate a better outcome. Hanging people out to dry sells tabloid newspapers but is a major barrier to building successful business relationships. Witch hunts merely create defensive behaviours which get in the way of robust analysis, and they undermine trust. Airlines recognised this a long time ago, which is why crash investigations focus on what happened and not who was to blame. This doesn’t mean that analysing a failed situation and learning from it is not vital – it is. But use the
lessons learned to improve, not to punish.

Owning the problem is crucial. When relationships break down, the reasons why can appear obvious. If a supplier fails to deliver a service to the required SLA, it is pretty clear what is wrong. But is that the whole picture? What role did the client company have in creating the problem? Was the requirement really as clear as it could have been? Are the performance measures still relevant… if they ever were? Can the supplier actually make money out of the contract, or is it so tight that they have had to deploy an overstretched ‘B’ team? In complex relationships all parties will have contributed to any problems that develop. Unless everyone takes full ownership of the solution, remedies are unlikely to go
beyond the superficial. To develop solutions that tackle problems at the system level, all parties need to be fully engaged and motivated to make a difference.

Maximising business objectives rather than the narrow scope of the transaction invariably leads to superior outcomes. Haggling over the contract and extracting the last ounce of value from a supplier may give a purchasing manager their bonus – but it won’t take the business to a better place. Suppliers frequently have the capacity and desire to add value to their clients’ business, not least because they are in constant touch with the market. But making this happen is not easy. It needs the right people from all relevant organisations to be involved, it needs motivation from all parties to engage, and it needs a robust process of collaboration to drive forward improvements.

So, in complex business relationships, if you want great solutions you need to be part of the problem.

-Vaughan Pierce

24th February 2017

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