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The New How [Paperback] by Nilofer Merchant

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During my nearly 20 years in business, both as an employee and as a trusted advisor to companies, I’ve seen what you’ve seen: strategies designed to win are commonly announced with fanfare, but they rarely live up to the ambitions and predictions of their advocates.

Sometimes they’re modestly successful, and any gap between reality and expected results is easy enough to explain away as bad luck or poor timing. Other times, particularly for the really bold moves, the outcomes are borderline disasters. Scapegoats are required, blame is apportioned, and one or two executives, often talented, get “reassigned,” or leave the company “to pursue other opportunities.”

Of course, all around us today, too many businesses are unsuccessful in meeting the challenges placed before them. They fail to defend themselves against the competition, miss new markets, do not innovate effectively, can’t reach/retain their customers, and are unable to keep their best people.

Viewed from the outside, these corporate trainwrecks are troubling. Having been on the inside, I can tell you it’s worse than troubling; it’s excruciating. That’s because when you’re part of one of these failing efforts, it is personal: it’s your product that didn’t sell, it’s that new market opportunity you predicted but didn’t seize, it’s your missed results, your effort that was wasted. The executive team often complains that their teams “aren’t executing well.” The rest of the organization grumbles that the execs “just don’t get it.”

In the end, what we often have is lost opportunity, lost human potential, squandered corporate capabilities, and lost market value. Doesn’t that make you mad? It made me mad—mad enough to want to fix it. I was fed up with my own behavior and that of my colleagues. We were wasting our time, rather than focusing on the fundamental problem: what is going to help us to win in the market. We needed to know how to set direction to win, and win repeatedly.

What is the real issue we need to solve? The real issue is the systematic way we go about setting direction and making tough trade-offs. For too long, the business world has insisted that major decisions be owned by only one part of an organization, the executive suite. Execution and tactics are delegated to another part of the organization, those who actually get things done. If you’re within one of these companies, you know what this leads to: an enormous gap between the vision at the top and the understanding and alignment of those in the organization that must turn that vision into a ground-level reality.

In Silicon Valley, we call that gap an “Air Sandwich”: the empty void in an organization between the high-level strategy conjured up in the stratosphere and the realization of that vision down on the ground. Rather than connective pieces between the vision and the reality, the filling in an Air Sandwich consists mainly of misunderstandings, confusion, and misalignment. This Air Sandwich prevents us from winning. This Air Sandwich is frustrating and, at times, infuriating.

As soon as I could identify the Air Sandwich within the organization, I knew it was the very thing we needed to eliminate. But the Air Sandwich is not the root cause of the problem. It is a symptom of the flawed legacy system of setting direction that may have worked ages ago, but doesn’t any more. We need a new system. We need a practical approach that demands that everyone be able to contribute, and lets us gather insights from anywhere in the organization. We need an approach that allows us to make decisions that align with the vision, collectively debate, and gather more reliable and insightful information. We need an approach that helps us to use conflict and tension to motivate the creative process, identify the things that matter, and still drive alignment and resolution. And, given the nature of our times, we need an approach that lets us move faster, not slower, more practically than theoretically—and it sure better help us tap into the power of the people in our organizations.

My team and I have developed—through years of discovery and synthesis, trial and error, some sweat, and a few tears—a different approach that gets everyone to collaborate and create winning strategies. It has been used and tested, in whole or sometimes in part, on numerous real-world initiatives. This approach is the New How.

I believe we can make smarter decisions and set direction faster and with better information; that we can more effectively implement a direction; that we can move swiftly as a whole organization with clarity of purpose; and that we can use the best of ourselves and one another to do business in a way that makes us proud.

And if you’re reading this book, then you are not part of the “no way, no how” crowd. You’re ready for the “new way, new how.” The New How has helped bring more joy and more success to my experience of business. I hope it will do the same for you. So, let’s get started.

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