Get Ready for Constructive Confrontation, Don’t Run Away

No matter how similar, all companies develop their own distinct cultures.  Hopefully you have all had the opportunity to experience what it is like to work in a great company culture and working environment.  On the contrary, I sincerely hope that your time working in toxic, poorly developed company cultures has been limited.

Company culture can even vary across different business units (BUs). Sometimes cultures are pervasive, with little room for major variations by Business Unit (BU).  Often, however,  a BU will have a major variation.

In the Cloud Management BU where I previously worked,  we believed in hoisting our pirate flag on our building.  A lot of behavior styles followed from that culture, mostly good for that stage of the building.

Another phenomenon that occurs from time to time is the development of a mini-culture within a larger corporation, something I experienced at HP Services where we were building a completely new business model.  However, earlier in my career I experiences something quite unique culturally, and the rest of this blog provides the insights I gained.

Intel Inside

When I was in HP Labs, we decided to create a joint venture with Intel corporation on a  new process that involved manufacturing technology for depositing novel thin films.  It also involved the largest purchase order I ever had to approve (over $3M) in buying a reactor from Applied Materials.  The three-way agreement between the two customers and one vendor taught me a lot about intellectual property (IP) protection in contracts.  Part of working together was that each company brought something to contribute:  fabrication facilities and capacity, money, previous IP and human capital.  The other unique part of working together was the infusion of both the HP and Intel culture, a potential clash between HP and constructive confrontation.

A Boot Camp in Constructive Confrontation

Russ Alan Prince sums up in this article how business success can be achieved using constructive confrontation.  The engineering and logical sides of me really like the following focus:

What you need to challenge in negotiations with peers, subordinates, and even employers are:

  • Inconsistencies and contradictions.
  • Missed commitments and repetitive excuses.
  • Evasions, distortions, and inaccuracies.
  • Diffidence or unwillingness to act.
  • Failure to connect actions with their consequences.

– Russ Alan Prince

As the HP folks, including myself, dove into the relationship with our Intel counterparts, we noticed a large gap in how we worked together, even though our offices were only ten miles apart. The HP way was one of collaboration, making sure everyone agreed to an action before we took it.  The Intel folks on the team came off more confrontational and, as we interpreted it, “rude” in the HP culture.

As the Department Manager, I immediately asked what the heck was going on.  While there was a part of me that bristled at the direct questioning and focus on resolving an issue very quickly, another part of me appreciated the approach the Intel team members were using.  It was direct, no BS, data based and held people to their commitments.

Before things got weird, we organized a group meeting for the Intel folks to explain their cultural model and the focus on constructive confrontation. The HP’ers calmed down a bit and, being logical engineers, we adopted a good fraction of the behaviors when dealing with folks on this project. It helped move it forward much faster than established models of behavior at HP.   (When we working with the good ol’ HP folks on other projects, we reverted to the “HP Way”)

Take What You Like and Leave the Rest

Was the Intel constructive confrontation a good system for all to adopt?  I offer that there are two sides to the issue, and both have merit. There are some notable blogs on this espousing the pros and cons of that cultural system.

One critical lesson that I learned from the cultural infusion with the Intel team was that if you wanted to get work done at a pace the business needs, then you need to step slightly out of the accepted politically correct corporate “drone” and instill a sense of pragmatic reality and a questioning approach to one’s management style.  Even to this day, over 15 years later when I am working on advising a company on their future product strategy, I will seek everyone’s counsel and ask a lot of questions. I challenge many of the established facts and party line conclusions.

Without an unrelenting search for a data based assessment, along with a good external perspective, companies will go on autopilot and not make the necessary changes to their strategy and execution plans to achieve their business outcomes.   I can honestly say that the experience with Intel on that joint venture added a set of skills that I used throughout my career to get the right things done fast.

Interested in the kind of projects I can help your organization with?  If so, please check out how I can help.


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