Here is an excerpt from an article written by Saj-nicole Joni for the Harvard Business Review blog. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, and sign up for a subscription to HBR email alerts, please click here.
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Have you ever noticed how, against all odds, someone, somewhere, manages to discover a solution to an insoluble problem through sheer intuition?
I’m thinking about this because my house nearly burned down about 5 months ago. We managed to escape with our lives and to save two of our indoor cats, but our third cat, Bella, the shy one who always hid, went missing during the chaos. While part of the house was still standing, we couldn’t live there, but my family and I were there every day and every evening — looking for Bella, putting out food, calling to her. Marlis and I went through everything that was left, with a fine-toothed comb. Kathy came home from Europe early and scoured inside and out. Andy searched, listened, and stood ready to open walls and floors.
The fire demolition team took up the search. We placed “missing cat” posters around the area. We alerted the animal shelters. Kathy even slept one night on the floor in the uninhabitable house hoping to hear her. In an act of sheer desperation, we hired someone who turned out to be a scammer in the form of “animal tracker” who was very happy to take a lot of our money and promise us that Bella was outside, alive and ready to come home. No cat.
Two weeks after the fire, I felt sadly sure that Bella was gone. But Kathy felt differently. She had the strongest sense that Bella was still alive. Three days later, she felt a strong pull and went into the most damaged part of the house. “Bella”, she called. She heard the faintest “meow.” She called again, and heard a tiny sound. She ran to get the flashlight, saw Bella stuck in the floorboards, and called for help.
Beyond any rational explanation, Bella survived the weeks of demolition, and was barely alive — but she was alive! Andy got her out. We rushed her to the cat hospital, where she was rehydrated, fed, and restored to health.
This isn’t just about cats. I was working with CEO of a manufacturing company when suddenly an overseas employee was missing, and feared taken hostage — maybe he was dead. The firm did everything that was rational, logical, and practical, including immediately putting many expensive experts on a team, working with governments, police, and the media as they tried to find him. As the first few days worn on, the most junior person on the CEO’s staff had this bizarre idea. He suggested they look in a very unlikely place — on their own property, but under the main building. This was based on “nothing but a hunch”. And it turns out that there he was — he has slipped and fallen in a most unlikely way. He was unconscious, but he was still alive.
When Kathy told me she still thought Bella was alive after more than two weeks of being missing, I did not stop her with my logical arguments about how we’d already tried everything. Instead, I urged her to follow her hunches. This is counterintuitive, because most of us disregard what we can’t see, measure, or prove. And most managers don’t listen to people with hunches.
Think about other “hunches” — from the people who had a feeling that the Chilean miners were still alive, to those who tried to warn BP about the unstable well in the Gulf of Mexico before it exploded. Creativity, says author Steven Johnson, often springs from what he calls the “slow hunch” — the incubation of ideas that, when colliding with other people’s ideas, build into stronger and stronger hunches, which lead eventually to a breakthrough idea.
In my view, it’s critically important for managers and leaders to nurture such hunches and create and environment where they can yield fruit. What about you? Here are three really important questions and we’d love to hear your thoughts: Have you ever had a moment when intuition — yours or someone else’s — saved the day?
As you come back to work after summer holidays, what is one intuition you should follow, not disregard?
When it really matters, and logic, expertise, and known answers fail, will you remember Bella and turn to those whose hunches can turn the impossible around?
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Saj-nicole Joni, chief executive of Cambridge International Group, is a confidential advisor to CEOs and top executives worldwide. She is the author, with Damon Beyer, of The Right Fight.
Saj-nicole Joni is president and CEO of the Cambridge International Group, Ltd. As well as an internationally known business strategist and Third Opinion adviser to senior executives and high-potential leaders, providing insight into high-stakes issues at the intersection of strategy, action and complexity. She is a leading pioneer of Third Opinion counsel and has championed its place in the halls of corporate power. The impact of her work is to enable her clients to successfully lead their organizations and tackle risk, identify and capitalize more effectively on important revenue and market opportunities, and make better decisions around complexities that yield sustained financial performance. Joni’s clients include a cadre of C-level executives at the Global 200 firms, including category leaders in such sectors as finance, technology, software, information, professional services, telecommunications, oil and gas, pharmaceutical and media companies. She also works with CEOs of smaller, more entrepreneurial companies. Joni is a former Microsoft and CSC Index executive with several prestigious board memberships.
She is the author of The Third Opinion: How Successful Leaders Use Outside Insight to Create Superior Results and, more recently, of The Right Fight: How Great Leaders Use Healthy Conflict to Drive Performance, Innovation, and Value. She has also authored articles for a variety of publications and has served on the faculties of MIT, Carnegie Mellon University and Wellesley College for more than ten years. Joni earned her Ph.D. at the University of California at San Diego.
Morris: Before focusing on two of your books, a few general questions. First, when and why did you found Cambridge International Group, in 1997?
Joni: I founded the firm so that I could serve as a confidential adviser to CEOs who need a sparring partner when they are confronting their thorniest questions and toughest problems. To me, this is a way of giving back, helping them to raise their game. The kind of work that I do is very different than services provided to CEOs by other experts, such as professional coaches, communications specialists, or experts in M&A or supply chains. In most cases, a CEO can avail him or herself of many different kinds of experts, but it’s hard to find a business executive and strategist who will help them wrestle with the most difficult issues of leading a company. Another person who does this kind of specialized work is Ram Charan, who has worked with people like Larry Bossidy and Jack Welch.
Morris: To what extent (if any) has your mission since changed?
Joni: Oh, the mission has not changed at all! I have done this for so many years now, and my commitment to the work just continues to grow. There is such a huge need out there. It’s quite lonely at the top!
Morris: In The Opposable Mind, Roger Martin discusses what he characterizes as “integrative thinking,” perhaps best exemplified by Abraham Lincoln as portrayed by Doris Kearns Goodwin in Team of Rivals. That is, Lincoln possessed “the predisposition and the capacity to hold two [or more] diametrically opposed ideas” in his head and then “without panicking or simply settling for one alternative or the other,” was able to “produce a synthesis that is superior to either opposing idea.” Throughout his presidency, Lincoln frequently demonstrated integrative thinking, a “discipline of consideration and synthesis [that] is the hallmark of exceptional businesses [as well as of democratic governments] and those who lead them.” Here’s my question: Isn’t this the mindset that one must have to appreciate the value of what you characterize as “the third opinion”?
Joni: Yes, of course. It’s the mindset any good leader must cultivate if he or she wants to lead their company to greatness. And it’s a particularly important mindset to have in these increasingly complex times.
The challenge for most leaders is in learning to think integratively. Most top businesspeople aren’t born with this skill, so it helps them to be well partnered with a great team of rivals, or people like Professors Charan, Martin or, me who can introduce them to alternative ways of thinking. When a leader is able to make good use of a third opinion by a qualified outsider, he or she develops “muscles” that can be used to apply this kind of skill in a practical way. And beyond that, the leader can push integrative thinking down into the organization, so that the next generation of leaders also raises its game.
I am now in the process of completing interviews of thought leaders who include:
Meanwhile, check these out and put some white caps on your gray matter:
Walter Kiechel III
As I read the Introduction to this book, I was reminded of two observations by Peter Drucker and one by Michael Porter. First Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all” and “The most serious mistakes are not being made as a result of wrong answers. The true dangerous thing is asking the wrong question.” Now Porter: “The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do. ” Especially given the current and imminent global economy, it is imperative for business leaders to keep these observations in mind when deciding what to do…and what not to do. This is what Saj-nicole Joni and Damon Beyer seem to have in mind when asserting that “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.”
They recommend six “Right Fight Principles” to guide and inform decisions made and devote a separate chapter to each – explaining HOW to apply the principles by citing real-world examples — in Parts Two and Three, once they have established (in Part One) a context, a frame-of-reference, for them by explaining how and why leaders “must introduce and manage right fights to achieve their strategic objectives. More specifically, to create breakthrough performance, meaningful innovation, and lasting values” and to “use tension for maximum benefits” while recognizing (“decoding”) and then avoiding “all kinds of wrong fights.” Then in Part Four, they provide tests for identifying and leading right fights as well as an “eye-opening” assessment tool for teams, “The Reverse Fishbowl.”
It may seem simplistic to affirm the importance of “fighting” what should be fought and “fighting” it right but, in fact, there are several important issues to consider once a decision has been made to engage in “battle.” For example, terms of engagement such as when and where, allocation of resources, and contingency planning (with or without use of scenaria). Even when in full compliance with the “Right Fight Principles” that Joni and Beyer advocate, preparations for any significant engagement must be flexible, taking into full account whatever adjustments may need to be made. While serving as the Supreme Allied Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF), General Dwight Eisenhower is reported to have observed, “Plans are nothing; planning is everything.”
Credit Joni and Beyer with providing a wealth of evidence-driven insights and sound counsel that can be of substantial value to decision-makers in organizations that now struggle to increase and improve performance, innovation, and value. It would be a fool’s errand to attempt to apply all of their suggestions and recommendations. Rather, each reader must read and then re-read this book with great care, then select whatever material is most appropriate to her needs and interests, and, to achieving the strategic objectives of her or his organization. That said, I do presume to suggest that the six “Right Fight Principles” are eminently suitable for guiding and informing efforts to overcome the inevitable challenges, and resolve the inevitable complications during the process of planning and then implementing the initiatives to achieve those objectives.
Although I have not as yet found anything specific in Joseph Schumpeter’s books and articles that says so, I assume he realized that creative tension is a prerequisite to creative destruction. The right fights that must be fought internally cannot be fought right without clarity, courage, and candor within a culture of transparency. Only then can the right external fights be fought right…and won.
In The Right Fight, published by Harper Business (February-2010), Saj-nicole Joni and Damon Beyer explain how great leaders use healthy conflict to drive performance, innovation, and value. “What it really takes to lead people and organizations is this: if you want to succeed at an 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.”
They identify three major benefits:
1. Right fights lower risk. “Effective systems of checks and balances always depend on vigorous dissent.”
2. Right fights create value. “They live at the heart of innovation, breakthrough, and real change.”
3. Right fights grow better leaders. “They are surest way to develop the leadership skills and strategic thinking necessary for the twenty-first century.
“You can learn to create healthy conflict and positive change by choosing the right fights. Of course, you have to be careful. You’ve probably seen right fights fought wrong that failed to produce [desired] results, and of course wrong fights, even of fought right are worthless.”
The Opposable Mind
Crucial Conversations and
Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler
Warren Bennis, Daniel Goleman, and James O’Toole
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Saj-nicole Joni is an internationally known business strategist and advisor to CEOs and other top executives across the globe. A frequent speaker with a regular Forbes.com column, she has also appeared on numerous television programs and published several articles. She has taught at MIT, Carnegie Mellon, and Wellesley. Joni is the founder and CEO of the Cambridge International Group. Damon Beyer is a senior executive advisor with Booz and Company and a founding member of the Katzenbach Center for organizational innovation. He is a former partner with McKinsey & Company and has also published several articles in major business journals, including Harvard Business Review.
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