When you consider the setting in which decisions are made in an organization, it’s easy to picture a conference room table. The CEO sits at the head of the table and a council of vice presidents and executives line either side. Bob Frisch, author of “Who’s in the Room? How Great Leaders Structure and Manage the Teams Around Them,” argues that some of the most critical decisions in an organization are made before the door to the conference room swings open. In this interview, he discusses the power of the “kitchen cabinet,” the problem with team-building exercises and the question every senior management team should answer.
Let’s start with the basic premise of the book: What leads members of an executive team to come to the CEO and ask, ‘Why wasn’t I in the room?’
The group goes by a variety of different names, but it could basically be called the boss and the boss’s direct reports. Officially speaking, this is the senior decision-making body of the company. Everybody knows that this is the boss and his or her team. They get together every week or every month, and they make the big momentous decisions.
The reality for the people that sit on those teams is that most of the major decisions are made by a smaller group before that team ever gets together. The boss makes decisions with the same handful of people around him or her time after time. It’s an informal ‘kitchen cabinet’ that makes the major decisions and the larger group has to discuss it, modify, communicate it, implement it, etc. The senior group doesn’t actually make the decisions of the organization and that gap between the myth and reality causes problems.
Many companies that experience this type of issue with decision-making think the solution lies in hiring a consultant or someone who tries team-buildin’ exercises. What is actually the result of this solution?
Bosses figure that if the team can communicate better, the frustrations caused by the decision-making process will go away.
The root cause of the problem isn’t psychological. It’s not behavioral. It’s not a communication problem. The root cause is, for example, the different people around the table have different political power. The root cause could also be that the boss doesn’t want to have 12 or 14 people around him every time he wants to make a decision. Bosses want the flexibility, latitude and intimate feeling that they get from having only two or three people around them when making decisions.
A central point for anyone reading this book is to move from ‘Should we do this?’ to ‘How do we do this?’ What starts the process of shifting a company from the former to the latter?
The business case goes in front of senior management teams or executive committees for approval. Usually the group comes into the conference room, the lights go down, they show the business case, the lights go up and things get passed through. We asked numerous groups, ‘In what percent of businesses cases is the case either turned down or significantly changed at the level of executive team approval?’
The typical answer we received was that it was changed at this level in less than 10 percent of cases. Usually what people said is that one or two cases were changed in the past few years. This is a kabuki, ritualistic approval process that is in almost every process flow of almost every business case. The ‘best-practice’ companies don’t say, ‘Should we go ahead and do this planned expansion?’ That’s a foregone conclusion. The question that these companies ask is: ‘Are the various parts of the organization around the table prepared to do what they need to do to support the successful implementation of the initiative described in this business case?’
“Who’s in the Room?”
By Bob Frisch
Jossey-Bass, 193 pages, $29.95
About the book: “Who’s in the Room” is author and consultant Bob Frisch’s examination of the organizational decision-making process. Based on years of research and intense interviews with a wide range of CEOs and their teams, Frisch guides leaders through a process to empower their senior management group. He redirects the senior management team’s focus and spreads decision-making power across the organization.
The author: Bob Frisch is managing partner of The Strategic Offsites Group and has worked with organizations ranging from Fortune 500 companies to German mittelstand family businesses to the U.S. State Department. Frisch’s work has been featured in the Harvard Business Review, The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, Businessweek and Fortune.
Why you should read it: Making decisions causes internal tension in organizations. The biggest problem is that this tension often goes unspoken and unresolved. Frisch provides one of the more captivating examinations of the decision-making process. He also explains the reasons that traditional solutions such as team-building exercises and corporate psychologists fail to produce results related to decision-making.
Why it’s different: Frisch makes a critical distinction to which leaders should pay attention. He titles one chapter “Move from ‘Should We Do This?’ to ‘How Do We Do This?’” and he gives interesting evidence to support the belief that the former question is rarely answered by the senior management team. By restructuring the priorities of the senior management team, Frisch takes his readers away from traditional thinking that inevitably forces people to try to make the best of a broken situation.
Can’t miss: “Best Practices: Design an Organization That Delivers the Outcomes You Need.” In this chapter, Frisch teaches readers about the “Three Centers of Gravity.” Despite arguing for the dissolving of as many organizational teams as possible, Frisch help executives revitalize and strengthen the three teams that generally exist in most organizations. The chapter provides a push to an outcomes-based approach that is certain to help organizations be more effective.
To share or not to share: Executives will want their team members to read this book. It’s an inexpensive investment that will prevent needless spending on team-building consultants. “Who’s In the Room” also negates the root cause of the hurt feelings that result from feeling left out.
How to reach: Bob Frisch was a recent guest on Soundview Live, Soundview’s exclusive webinar series. To hear the complete broadcast, visit www.summary.com/webinars.