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The New How by Nilofer Merchant

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Epilogue: It’s What We Make of It

Throughout this book, I’ve shared the ways business can improve, how we reinvent work together, and how collaboration in the form of co-creating business solutions can fundamentally improve outcomes. Let me share with you now the backstory of why I believe what I believe.

I was in my final quarter of graduate school, feeling ready to be done with the tightrope act between working and studies, when I got the assignment that transformed my perspective of how business works.

Standing regally at the podium, my white-haired professor, Andre Delbecq, dean of management studies, gave us our last assignment: study a tree, reflect on how this tree relates to business and leadership, and then write an essay about it. And, no, it wasn’t a joke. “Easy A, here I come!” I thought, already picturing how this cakewalk assignment would free up the necessary time to focus on my more important paper, an HBR case study about how company strengths are manifested in business outcomes.

Though I considered the tree assignment a waste of time, I went through the motions, diligently studying a large oak tree near my home. I’d been staring at that tree for some minutes when I suddenly realized: the tree essay and my case study work represented the same darn thing. (Wouldn’t ya know it, I learned something after all?)

What (I asked myself) is the basis of a tree? The roots and the trunk. Sure, the leaves and the fruit are the eye-catching bits that come to mind when we think of a tree. They are what my six-year-old son will sketch if you ask him to draw you a tree. Yet the enduring elements that survive the storms and winter frost are the unsung roots and trunk, which produce and nourish the leaves and the fruit.

The parallel in business became clear to me: companies often focus their attention on the eye-catching business results of profits and stock price (the leaves and the fruit), rather than the organizational systems and processes (the roots and the trunk) that generate those results. In both cases, it’s the unseen and unsung parts that drive the fundamental health, growth, and results of the system. Just as roots derive nutrients from the soil, so businesses draw upon ideas to feed growth; as the trunk supports and defines the tree shape, so people innovate and set direction for the company. When you prune the branches judiciously, making tough decisions to make room for future growth, the trunk will support the branches that bear fruit, and nutrients will go to all the right places.

As I studied that tree, I realized how simple it was.

All the complicated and sophisticated models I’d been learning in business school and applying inside notable companies were, by themselves, not enough to create success. The models and analysis missed the very basics of what created strong business outcomes. The roots of the tree represent the individual team members in business. To harness the power of ideas, you need people to capture them, debate them, and shape them into the substance of competitive advantages. People are the roots that enable organizations to thrive.

Just as a single root can feed a tree, any one person can prompt a business to reinvent. Change begins with the actions and attitudes of people like you—driven people, looking to tackle challenges—who choose to work in a new way, creating a New How. We feed and water the tree, or in this case, our organizations. We make the choices to pursue results that support the health of our companies.

The idea that any or each of us can reinvent business to work better is both daunting and inspiring. But anyone who has picked up this book and studied its contents this far is plainly interested in driving change and adopting new approaches that create more winning outcomes.

There is much to do; where do we begin? Well, we begin as we already have, by understanding what is possible. What comes next depends on you and your situation. But it is about taking action (Figure 51), as cultures and companies change when any one shift happens.

Culture change begins with one person
Figure 51. Culture change begins with one person

Most of my career has been about problem solving and creating winning strategies. I also have a growing passion for understanding what can enable the people in organizations—people like you and me—to improve how business works. That passion has driven me to develop the tools and practices that fill this book. So, this book is not just about making your business more successful; it is also a manifesto.

I’ve shared this approach with you not merely so we can achieve better business results, but because it can create better work environments where people can rise above and thrive. I want everyone to step up their game, bring their full abilities to work, and stop abdicating responsibility to “the other guy.” I want companies to thrive because they are able to come up with great new directions and make them real in the marketplace. Those successes will, in turn, challenge each of us to be more active, creative, and engaged members of our business world. The more we bring our unique creativity, personal ownership, shared purpose, and collaborative spirit to our work, the more the institutions we work within will embody those characteristics.

Our organizations will grow nobler in their methods and outcomes. I hope you will join me in this quest.

There are no signs that our world is going to move slower, or become simpler or less competitive. On the contrary, the problems ahead will likely be intensely challenging. As we in business choose flatter, more collaborative models in our organizations, we are designing the future. We can take Gandhi’s advice and remember, “The future depends on what we do in the present.” We can create better and faster organizations. You are not merely allowed to participate; you are called to participate in creating a New How for your business.

Thank you for reading this book. But please don’t stop here. Go make a difference in the world.

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