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Bill George

Harvard Business School Professor, former Medtronic CEO

Great Leaders Forge the Way to Win-Win Solutions For All Parties

Originally Published in the Star-Tribune on July 3, 2010

As a lifelong businessman, I was surprised to be invited to speak to the Association of Union Contractors last year. They told me they’re searching for “win-win” solutions between their members, the contractors and the owners. For many years they’d seen their membership shrink as owners turned instead to non-union contractors when costs rose to noncompetitive levels.

They recognized that union contractors had been badly hurt by the recession. Instead of continuing the battles through “win-lose” negotiations, they adopted a new approach. They decided to use their members’ expertise to work collaboratively with contractors and owners to find ways to improve construction quality and employee safety while reducing costs and time-to-completion. A win-win solution.

That got me to reflecting, isn’t this what leadership is all about? Isn’t it the ability to solve complex problems that single-minded groups couldn’t resolve by bringing together differing points of view to create win-win solutions? Isn’t this vastly superior to win-lose confrontations that result in damaged relationships, drawn-out strikes that hurt both sides and the inability to work together collaboratively?

Rarely do win-win solutions represent a decisive victory for a single viewpoint. Nor are win-win approaches about Washington-style political compromises in which all parties wrangle until both compromise sufficiently to reach an agreement that too often doesn’t solve basic problems and creates unanticipated consequences.

Rather, great leaders work together with people who represent diverse views to forge solutions that transcend immediate conflicts. Together they devise solutions that will be successful for all parties in the environment of the future. That’s the way great organizations are transformed in order to sustain their success, and the way they ensure superior service to their customers and clients.

IBM is a case in point. To overcome parochialism and traditional squabbles between business and geographical organizations, CEO Sam Palmisano converted IBM’s entire 400,000-employee organization from a geographic structure to an integrated global network, and from a task orientation to “leading by values.” 

Palmisano insisted that functional managers and country managers alike give priority to customers scattered around the globe by sending their top people to customer sites instead of hoarding them for their own organizations. That led to a $500 million contract with China’s largest bank, Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, for a fully integrated information and communications network. Palmisano not only enlisted the collaborative support of hundreds of contractors, but insisted they adhere to IBM’s global business practices rather than following their local business traditions.

Other companies ranging from Cisco Systems to Exxon-Mobil, Novartis and Unilever are adopting similar approaches to create win-win solutions for their customers and prevent parochial issues from getting in the way.

The nurses contract

This brings to mind the contentious contract negotiations between the Minnesota Nurses Association and Twin Cities hospitals, where both sides seemed to be digging ever deeper holes for win-lose postures. Ironically, both sides in this dispute share a common goal: to provide superior care to patients.

Looking ahead to the new health care environment, three things are certain: 1) sharp reimbursement reductions for Medicare, Medicaid, and private health plans are coming; 2) to survive in this environment, quality of patient care must go up; and 3) costs must come down.

Nurses should be treated as professionals who are given opportunities to take on greater levels of responsibility in the new health care environment. Using nurses more effectively is vital to raising health care quality at reduced cost. It is well known how much patients value their relationships with their nurses, especially in the Twin Cities, which has one of the best records for patient care of any metropolitan area in the United States. 

The nurses’ union and the hospitals reached a tentative agreement Thursday. But since they are both committed to patient care, nurses and hospitals could work together in the coming months to figure out how to improve patient care with higher quality outcomes at lower costs.

In the health care environment of the future, nurses should work in teams with doctors. This would require high levels of collaboration, increased knowledge and skills, and greater flexibility in assignments and scheduling, all of which would lead to increased opportunities for promotion and  enhanced compensation.

A new approach

In this context restricting nurses to rigid schedules may be inconsistent with patient needs. This is especially true in the case of those invaluable nurses who engage in delivery of babies, life-altering surgeries, and the frequent emergencies that arise in hospitals. With these broadened professional responsibilities, strikes by nurses would become an anachronism, just like they would be if physicians walked off the job and left thousands of patients without essential medical care.

As we look at the major societal problems we face, it becomes clear that the win-lose approaches are not going to solve the intractable issues in education, in energy and the environment, and in pursuit of global peace. Instead, they are leading to greater conflicts, increased anger on all sides, and extended delays in moving forward to devise and implement workable solutions.

What if we apply the win-win approach to:

  • Create more flexible approaches to educating K-12 students, enabling them to learn in their own ways and at their own pace, and ultimately prepare them better for the working world?
  • Develop an integrated energy policy that recognizes the need for improved efficiency, reduced carbon emissions, and renewable energy sources, yet recognizes the vital role that fossil fuels will play for the foreseeable future?
  • Devise peaceful solutions to intractable ethnic problems that acknowledge the interdependence of all sides and enable the people suffering from the disputes not only to live in peace, but to realize their material and spiritual goals at the same time?

Utopian? Not at all. We know that the consequences of win-lose negotiations mean that everyone loses. We have seen that win-win solutions enable both parties to flourish.

It’s time to give the win-win approach the opportunity to help us solve our most difficult problems.