Far too often in business, I find senior management teams (the ‘Top Team') going through the motions. Mostly, monthly management meetings do not occur, or they are infrequent and almost always the discussions are too ‘polite’. Who wants to upset ‘the boss’, stand-up to the boss, deliver bad news or embarrass a colleague because of their poor performance ("it could be me next time"!)? These issues are often discussed informally but rarely formally in businesses. From experience, Top Teams avoid truly wrestling with the issues that need to be faced.

If as a leader you are pleased with the performance of your Top Team how do you ensure you maintain and improve your performance?

In future blogs we will discuss the role of a Non-Executive Director but here is a 'technique' that you can practice today and implement within your business - Zones of Debate - that doesn't cost a penny.

A few years ago, as an MD, I went with my Top Team to meet Professor Cliff Bowman of Cranfield School of Management. We thought we were a high performing team but quickly we realised we had much to learn and there was a lot of room for improvement!

Bowman believes that debating issues in business is akin to an apple. He argued that the thickness of the skin of the apple was where most managers readily stayed i.e. in a Zone of Comfortable Debate (ZOCD). He stated that managers rarely move out of this zone for the reasons at the beginning of this posting.

Bowman continued and likened the large fleshy part of the apple to a Zone of Uncomfortable Debate (ZOUD) in organisations. He stated that effective business leaders need to move out of the ZOCD and into the ZOUD. The ZOUD encompassed the sensitive aspects of the organisation and managerial attitudes and beliefs which tend to be avoided in open discussions. Examples are power bases, vested interests and personal reputations/egos. Managers have to enter this zone of uncomfortable debate and be prepared to discuss and challenge such issues. This can be difficult to achieve considering people's natural defensive mechanisms (see 'Embracing & Embedding Change' post on 6th March, 2012).

Bowman pushed further and claimed that the core of the apple is a person's 'Intuitive Core' - the gut feeling many have of knowing what is right which is protected by the other layers. Bowman encouraged that Top Teams be open, signal that they are going from ZOCD to ZOUD with the aim to explore the intuitive core.

Bowman concluded that without such an open debate about the really significant blockages to change, it is unlikely that they will be tackled.

Two phrases that I often use to signal that we are moving into the Zone of Uncomfortable Debate are "let's get things from under the table on to the table" and "Pointy Stick".

We suggest you develop your own language and own signals and see how discussion, debates and decision moving improve.

For more see: Cliff Bowman, (1995) “Strategy workshops and top-team commitment to strategic change”, Journal of Managerial Psychology, Vol. 10 (1995) Issue: 8, pp.4 – 12

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