Why it’s important to “Dare to Disagree”

I recently came across this TED talk by Margaret Heffernan called “Dare to Disagree.” As with many TED talks, the presentation started with a story — in this case, about a doctor in 1950s UK named Alice Stewart. Alice decided that she wanted to investigate childhood cancer, and she discovered in 1956 that pregnant women who were exposed to X-rays had a higher incidence of children who died from cancer. This discovery ultimately led to the abandonment of the practice of X-raying pregnant women.

Alice’s findings contradicted the consensus view of the medical establishment. By the 1950s and 1960s, the prevailing view was that X-ray screening was an exciting and important technology that would improve health — not cause harm. Alice would dedicate the next 25 years of her life to challenging this status quo. How did she develop the conviction in her idea? How did she persist in the face of overwhelming opposition?

It turns out that Alice had a collaborator named George Kneale, a statistician. They made perfect partners because, as George once said, “My job is to prove Dr. Stewart wrong.” As Margaret said:

“He actively sought disconfirmation. Different ways of looking at her models, at her statistics, different ways of crunching the data in order to disprove her. He saw his job as creating conflict around her theories. Because it was only by not being able to prove that she was wrong, that George could give Alice the confidence she needed to know that she was right.”

Alice and George made perfect partners because they challenged each other. They didn’t just echo each other’s thinking. They analyzed each other’s work, they provided constructive criticism, they debated. It is through this “constructive conflict” that they sharpened their own thinking, and also convinced themselves that they were right. Thus, even when faced with overwhelming opposition in the subsequent years, Alice persisted because of her conviction that she was right.

As Charlie Munger mentioned in his commencement address to the Harvard School in 1986, both Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein sought disconfirming evidence to test their ideas.

“Darwin’s result was due in large measure to his working method, which… particularly emphasized… that he always gave priority attention to evidence tending to disconfirm whatever cherished and hard-won theory he already had. In contrast, most people early achieve and later intensify a tendency to process new and disconfirming so that any original conclusion remains intact.”

In her talk, Margaret argues that organizations should intentionally create constructive conflict in order to surface disconfirming evidence. By encouraging team members to seek disconfirming evidence and constructively debate ideas, we can pressure test our thinking and iterate it to get to the best possible answer.

In order to create the conditions for constructive conflict, you need the following:

  • A willingness to change your mind
  • Diversity within your team
  • Psychological safety for people to speak up

Willingness to change your mind

To develop the willingness to change your own mind, keep these quotes in mind:

“You are not your idea.” — Ed Catmull, co-founder of Pixar
“Be ruthlessly open-minded and constantly willing to reexamine your assumptions. You have to take the ego out of ideas, which is a very hard thing to do.” — Marc Andreessen, co-founder of Netscape, Opsware and A16Z
“When a better tool (idea or approach) comes along, what could be better than to swap it for your old, less useful tool? Warren and I routinely do this, but most people… forever cling to their old, less useful tools.” — Charlie Munger, Warren Buffet’s partner at Berkshire Hathaway

Diversity within your team

In her talk, Margaret mentions that diversity within your team is an important ingredient for constructive conflict.

“It requires that we find people who are very different from ourselves. That means we have to resist the neurobiological drive… that we really prefer people mostly like ourselves. And it means we have to seek out people with different backgrounds, different disciplines, different ways of thinking and different experience, and find ways to engage with them. That requires a lot of patience and a lot of energy.”

Psychological safety for people to speak up

Finally, we need to create an environment with psychological safety, so that people on our team feel comfortable speaking up. If people on our team are not willing to challenge each other, then you won’t have people looking for the disconfirming evidence that will ultimately sharpen the thinking and strengthen the conviction.

Margaret has this to say in her talk:

“So how do organizations think? Well, for the most part, they don’t. And that isn’t because they don’t want to, it’s really because they can’t. And they can’t because the people inside of them are too afraid of conflict.
“In surveys of European and American executives, fully 85 percent of them acknowledged that they had issues or concerns at work that they were afraid to raise. Afraid of the conflict that that would provoke, afraid to get embroiled in arguments that they did not know how to manage, and felt that they were bound to lose. Eighty-five percent is a really big number. It means that organizations mostly can’t do what George and Alice so triumphantly did. They can’t think together.”

So how do we create the psychological safety to encourage our team members to speak up and engage in constructive conflict? Amy Edmundson, HBS professor, gave a TED talk on psychological safety and shared these tips:

  1. Frame the work as a learning problem, not an execution problem. Acknowledge that there is lot of uncertainty and interdependency ahead. Tell people: “We’ve got to have everyone’s best ideas, instincts, and thinking.” This creates the rationale for speaking up.
  2. Acknowledge your own fallibility. “I might miss something — need you to flag things that I miss.” Model the behavior of admitting your own mistakes, and earnestly looking for ways to improve and learn. This creates more safety to speak up.
  3. Model curiosity. Ask a lot of questions. Seek to understand. This creates a necessity for people to speak up.

Set the stage by framing your approach as a learning problem. “The decision we’re making and the direction we’re headed is fraught with uncertainty, so we need to challenge each other’s thinking. By doing so, we’ll learn and iterate our thinking.”

Acknowledge your own fallibility and invite the conflict. “Look, this is just my current thinking, but it may not be right. Help me think through the reasons why this may not be true. Is there something I’m missing?” You want to actively invite the search for disconfirming evidence.

Finally, model curiosity when provided with feedback — or even when not. “You’ve been in this situation in a past company. What did you learn from that experience? Is there something that we haven’t considered?”

Pixar’s Braintrust

Although Margaret didn’t mention Pixar in her talk, I’m certain that she would be proud of Pixar’s Braintrust. As Ed Catmull explains in his book Creativity, Inc, the Braintrust is a tool to foster creativity through candor.

The Braintrust is a group of trusted colleagues that gets together periodically to review the progress of a Pixar film that is in development: the characters, the story, and the design. According to Ed, the job of the Braintrust is to “push towards excellence, and root out mediocrity.”

There are two analogies that Ed uses to describe the Braintrust process. For those of you familiar with academic research, you may identify with the analogy of academic peer review. This is the process by which researchers are evaluated by others in their field. As Ed says:

“I like to think of the Braintrust as Pixar’s version of peer review, a forum that ensures we raise our game — not by being prescriptive but by offering candor and deep analysis.”

The other analogy that Andrew Stanton, the Pixar director who created “A Bug’s Life” and “Finding Nemo,” uses is to liken the Braintrust to a panel of doctors.

“If Pixar is a hospital and the movies are the patients, then the Braintrust is made up of trusted doctors. In this analogy, it’s important to remember that the movie’s director and producer are doctors too. It’s as if they’ve gathered a panel of consulting experts to help find an accurate diagnosis for an extremely confounding case. But ultimately, it’s the filmmakers, and no one else, who will make the final decisions about the wisest course of treatment.”

Pixar’s Braintrust is exactly the type of constructive conflict that Margaret Heffernan advocates. The group presents disconfirming evidence and challenges each other’s ideas. In the process, the filmmaker will iterate his or her idea until the end product is much better as a result of this candor and feedback. And the filmmaker develops a stronger and stronger conviction in his or her film throughout the process.

Too often in organizations, we don’t challenge each other’s thinking. The loudest voice or the person with the most authority will propose an idea or decision, and others automatically get behind it. As a result, the organization may pursue a bad idea or make the wrong decision. And we don’t leverage all of the great thinking and ideas present in the minds of our entire team.

There’s a much better way. Margaret Heffernan argues that organizations should dare to disagree. By creating an environment where individuals intentionally seek disconfirming evidence and constructively debate ideas, we can sharpen our thinking and strengthen our conviction. To enable this type of constructive conflict, Margaret says that we need three things:

  • A willingness to change your mind
  • Diversity within your team
  • Psychological safety for people to speak up

I am convinced that the approach of encouraging constructive conflict is the best way for organizations to think. From here on out, for any organization that I’m a part of, I will always encourage us to dare to disagree. I hope that you choose to do the same.