Does Win-Win Lead to Lose-Lose in Strategic Choices?

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Win-win solutions; we all hear about the wisdom of finding a way to solve a problem that facilitates gains and wins for all parties involved. In a win-win scenario everybody is happy. Perhaps there is a bit of giving up something — but the idea is that the gains are bigger and stronger. In the end, everyone feels they got what they wanted on their own issues of importance.

A quick scan of win-win subjects in a Google search reveals proposed applications in all areas of life: both personally and professionally. There are also many forms of teaching on the subject of win-win: articles, books, seminars, videos, training, coaching — you name it and it is out there.

To be honest, I have accepted the wisdom of win-win to be true. In my own thinking, the idea of seeking out win-win solutions has risen to the level of being a principle. As a principle, win-win solutions should always be pursued (but sometimes not possible). It seems that most other people think this way, too. I tried to do a search on the Internet to find material on failures of win-win and when win-win does not work or why win-win should not be used. Nothing. I couldn’t find any resources describing the bad side of win-win. (Although I confess I waded through only a fraction the more than 4 million hits I received on these searches.)

So, imagine my surprise and intrigue when I read the following in a book:

The hard fact is this: when an organization’s commitments are in competition with one another, people in authority can resolve the situation perhaps only by making decisions that generate losses for some groups and gains for others. There is rarely a way to get around it (except through avoidance). Win-win solutions are ideal, but not common with strategic choices. When we hear someone talk about ‘win-wins,’ we wonder whether anything really lasting is going to change.1

In short, the change leadership experts who made that statement are telling us that while win-win solutions are desirable, they are rarely possible when it comes to making strategic choices in the organization! When making strategic choices, leaders must focus resources toward the pursuit of a particular goal. Leaders know that when they direct strategic managers to funnel finite organizational resources toward one goal they are removing resources from another goal. While this often means ending a given program or initiative, and some stakeholders may be hurt by that, the result is more likely to engage hearts and minds and see positive results for the whole organization.

Conversely, when leaders attempt to satisfy stakeholders who are committed to competing goals (read “implement a win-win solution”) , the results are often less than optimal for the organization. The stakeholders of neither goal gets what is really needed to make their program fly and both suffer — leading to a lose-lose situation.

The next time find yourself thinking, “What is the win-win I can implement here?” step back and consider whether that might actually lead to lose-lose. Sometimes the tough, but correct, call is a win-lose!

1Heifetz, Ronald, Alexander Grashow, and Martin Linsky. The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Press, 2009. p. 81. Emphasis added.

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