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 / Spring 2010 / Issue 58(originally published by Booz & Company)


Jack’s Right Fight

Jack smiled to himself. His HR guy had suggested an off-site meeting with team-building exercises to help relieve the tension. But Jack thought this way was better, because they were aiming for something really significant. A little tension along the way was a small price to pay for a better strategy in the end.

“Thanks, Danita,” Jack concluded. “Thanks, Andre. That was fabulous. You’ve given us all a lot to think about, and I’m sure we’ll have lots to discuss this afternoon. Shall we all reconvene at one o’clock?” He looked around the room, seeing nods and agreement; he nodded back, picked up his BlackBerry and his pile of papers, and headed back to his office. He needed time to figure out what he thought about the two ideas. Where was the big bet that would make the numbers and involve both sales and marketing?

As good as Danita’s presentation was, it didn’t feel completely solid. It didn’t make enough of the new machine. He knew the new product was going to be big, and her plan built it up too slowly. If they waited until Year Two, a competitor might get the jump on them. But Andre’s plan was just the opposite — it would work in theory, but it relied too much on the portable machine. And Jack was nervous about pushing the sales force into the middle market and consumer arenas, where they didn’t have much experience. They had always been focused on the larger business-to-business world.

Everything in Jack’s experience told him that a big bet was essential. They couldn’t bet half the farm on each plan. That wouldn’t get them anywhere.

Jack sighed. No matter if the team screamed for a decision. They would have to wait a little longer. The stakes were high, and he had to get the decision right. In the meantime, he would have to keep an eye on both Danita and Andre to make sure, once again, that no one stepped out of line.

In the Corner Office

Another very tense week went by. Halfway through it, Jack went to see Franz, the CEO, to reassure him that his team was fine, despite any rumbles that might be heard around the building. He planned to announce that he was going with Danita’s plan.

But when he got to the corner office, something told him to hold back.

“There’s a lot riding on this,” Jack said to Franz. “I’ve got one shot, and I want to get it right. That’s why I’ve started this little competition between the two of them. They’re good executives. They can handle it. And I’m going to wrap it up soon, so the agony will be over.”

“What about the fallout?” wondered Franz. “What are you going to do about the loser?”

“We can make them whole,” Jack said. “There will be plenty of glory to go around.”

Franz looked at him. “You sound confident.”

“I am,” said Jack. “This is going to work. I need until the end of the week to make the decision.”

“I’m looking forward to it,” said Franz.

That night, trying to fall asleep, Jack was still debating with himself. What’s wrong with me? he wondered. Do I need to think in some new way? But, he thought, big bets have always worked for me. There has to be some bet that pays off this time, too.

Suddenly Jack sat up in bed. He pounded the pillow. “That’s it!”

The next morning, he put in a call to Sascha, a friend who had been an informal mentor to him throughout his career. As he talked through the problem with her, Sascha encouraged him to trust his instincts. “You’re in a truly complex situation here,” she said, “but I think you’ve got an opportunity to get what’s best out of both plans — the markets, margins, and timing sensitivities require it. Give the challenge back to the team. They’re good, regardless of the politics. They’ll come through for you.”

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  1. Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan, Confronting Reality: Doing What Matters to Get Things Right (Crown Business, 2004): How to look clearly at the issues facing you, rather than live in a cocoon of comfortable assumptions.
  2. Saj-nicole Joni, The Third Opinion: How Successful Leaders Use Outside Insight to Create Superior Results (Portfolio, 2004): To navigate the complexity of right fights, you need a strong inner circle and advisors who will tell you the unvarnished truth.
  3. Saj-nicole Joni and Damon Beyer, The Right Fight: How Great Leaders Use Healthy Conflict to Drive Performance, Innovation, and Value (Harper Business, 2010): A guide to constructive conflict and its benefits.
  4. Zia Khan and Jon Katzenbach, “Are You Killing Enough Ideas?” s+b, Autumn 2009: Informal but candid battles that help companies focus on the right innovations.
  5. Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen, Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most (Viking Penguin, 1999): Why you can’t fight right fights without the personal capability of having straightforward conversations.
  6. 12 Angry Men. Directed by Sidney Lumet. MGM, 1957: Classic film about a fight worth fighting.
  7. For more thought leadership on this topic, see the s+b website at:
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