How to Dislodge a Stalemate and Move Forward
THE POLARIZATION PROBLEM
Polarization is a common problem for companies trying to make smart and agile strategic decisions. When people band together with likeminded teammates, it’s human nature for them to get more and more entrenched in their mindset.
The result is two opposing camps, each seeking a decision that’s more extreme than the original ideas of individual team members. This is a predictable outcome of group decision-making dynamics. Unfortunately, it can be a highly destructive one.
The decision is forced into a “yes or no” framework, and alternative options—which many team members might actually prefer—are left off the table. Because neither camp will give an inch, the CEO may have to step in and make the final call.
The result is a decision that not many people really like, a CEO who blames the team for indecisiveness, and behind-the-scenes grumbling that the CEO is playing favorites or behaving like a dictator. In situations like this, no one wins.
Consider this example:
Jill, president of a company that had created a new “smart home” thermostat, was at a crossroads. Over the past year, her company had conducted tests, in three geographic markets, of a direct-to-consumer sales approach.
The tests showed that given sufficient investment, her company could supplement its current sales to DIY retailers and local heating and air conditioning (HVAC) companies by selling direct to homeowners.
Now was the time to expand the program nationally, but the team had reached a stalemate over whether this investment was wise.
Members of the team fell into two camps, each side adamant about its position.
The “go” camp felt that selling direct to consumers was essential for the company to reach its growth goals.
The “no-go” camp felt that selling direct to consumers would kill the company. “It’s too risky,” they said. “If we go direct, DIY retailers and HVAC services companies will drop us as a supplier; they’d rather carry a product that they alone can supply.”
The “no-go” camp also feared that the company didn’t have the skills or deep pockets needed to be successful in the direct-to-consumer business.
Jill’s team had been wrestling with this go/no-go decision for more than six months, with zero progress. Each camp had dug deep trenches, accumulating more evidence that its point of view was correct.
Jill saw risks on both sides, but knew that whatever path forward the company chose, gaining the full commitment of her team—the leaders of sales, marketing, manufacturing, finance, human resources and legal—was crucial for success.
So, what happens next? Ideally, in a stalemate situation such as this, the leader should take six key actions:
1. Set clear objectives. As a first step to resolving the impasse, Jill got her team together to agree on objectives. After a full afternoon of healthy debate, the team agreed that within two years, it was essential—a “must have”—to achieve 20% market share. The “nice to haves” included retaining at least the current level of sales with the DIY retailers and HVAC services companies, and maintaining at least 10% net profits.
2. Develop several alternatives. A week later, Jill’s group gathered again to discuss alternative approaches to meeting their agreed-upon objectives. Members of both camps were surprised at the breadth of options the team identified. After several hours of brainstorming and heated discussion, the group developed four distinct alternatives for how to proceed, which varied in terms of the partners they would enlist, the way they would engage the HVAC services companies, and how the company would manage logistics to supply each local market.
3. Address each camp’s specific concerns. In evaluating the pros and cons of each strategic alternative, it’s crucial to address each side’s concerns. Jill asked a lot of questions and paid attention to both the facts and the emotions each team member expressed.
4. Choose a path forward, then adjust course as you gain knowledge. The most common cause of stalemates is uncertainty about what the future will bring. And the best way to get facts to address these unknowns is to test the waters. Jill’s team decided to collaborate with several HVAC services companies, to experiment with different ways of enlisting them as partners. The “no-go” camp was surprised to learn that the HVAC suppliers actually liked the company’s new direct-to-consumer approach, because it enabled them to attract new customers for profitable maintenance contracts.
5. Manage the risks as you implement. Jill assigned one person on her team to manage each of the risks related to the direct-to-consumer approach. Because each risk was explicitly managed, the team was able to press forward with speed and coordination.
6. Recognize both small and large wins on the path to success. As you pursue a new strategic path, it’s essential to recognize and celebrate small wins. Jill made sure to celebrate even the small signs of progress each week. This kept the energy high and helped the team to stay cohesive as they navigated the bumps on the road to success.
Whatever you do, don’t let the polarization problem stop your company from pursuing bold growth strategies. In our age of disruption, you must be agile and courageous. Letting fear and indecision slow you down is a huge mistake. In fact, it can be your death knell. Today’s business climate rewards fast innovation and adaptability. And leaders who understand how to unleash employee creativity and build a culture of trust can help teams break stalemates and move ahead fearlessly.
Amanda Setili, author of “Fearless Growth: The New Rules to Stay Competitive, Foster Innovation, and Dominate Your Markets,” is President of the strategy consulting firm Setili & Associates. She can be reached through