We often times avoid conflict as most of us find it unpleasant. In healthy organizations, we usually like most of our coworkers, and are often times close friends. Disagreements and conflict amongst people we like is never fun, but contrary to our intuition it’s actually a vital part of a healthy decision making process. Instead of pursuing consensus as the goal in a decision making process, a team should aim to disagree and commit.
Alfred P. Sloan (the legendary CEO of GM) is known for calling off a meeting because every executive in the room agreed with a proposal. Mr. Sloan wanted the executives to spend more time thinking about how the proposal could go wrong, and to understand the risks better. It’s rare that any proposal of substance can be unanimously favored with no dissent. It often means that there is something missing in our understanding of the proposal. We should strive to find every risk, flaw, and downside to a proposal before acting on it. If we only see the “happy path”, the one of least resistance, we are not adequately prepared when things do not go according to plan, and we underestimate the likelihood and scope of failure.
“Disagree and commit” is a better goal for a team in that it ensures we have a better picture of the implications of our decisions. Once we take our ego out of the equation, being right is much less important than having the most information possible before taking action. That might mean some of us should play devil’s advocate, even when we are arguing a position that we do not necessarily agree with. This is common in the age old tradition of passioned debate at the dinner table of the French household. It is expected that, on any topic, there should be someone playing the role of devil’s advocate, even if everyone at the table holds the same position on a topic. This forces people to put themselves in the shoes of their opponents and argue the alternate side, even if it is against their own beliefs or interest. Again, it’s not about being right, but rather about gathering the best possible understanding and perspective on the situation. The French, stemming from this kind of dinner table debate, have done a great job of building critical thinking into all of their decision making.
We should aim to see the other side of any coin, even if we heavily favor one side. As a team, it is our job to give well rounded consideration to every option available to us. Consensus will allow risks to build up in our blind spots, and we must force ourselves out of this comfort zone and shine a light on the unpleasant alternatives of the decisions we must make.