Dissent & Expertise

25 March 2017

2 weeks ago marked passing my 6 month mark at consultancy firm, where I’ve so far been on 3 studies, got involved in a few community initiatives, made a few friends, and spent most of my time in 3 rather different Asian cities (not including my own). Dividing this time up was a short holiday office closure, where I could go back to some introspection and thought exploration, for time and headspace of my own.

When one looks back at the last 6 months, was it time well-spent? How have I grown, and how was it similar to or different from what I hoped or expected? What have I learned about large organizations innovating and retooling themselves? In part, why more varied specialist representation is being incorporated into the firm, hence people like me.

Some meditations are in order. The one for today is on how we have a few express culture values that preserve a way of doing things in order to prevent groupthink, stasis, mediocrity.

There’s a firm truism ‘obligation to dissent’ that levels the playing field between senior and junior consultant where bias, incentive or habit of mind may hold sway over the more logical, effective or better solution. Definition of better is itself a question of rigorous debate and collective ratiocination, given everyone holds a different stake based on their skillset, orientation and context, but that’s fodder for another piece!

As we know express values are only as good as they are lived, behaved, embodied, and held up through critical moments of calling stuff out. It’s a handy expression to hold onto when you don’t agree, even if you seem to be the only one, to create a breakdown in the current mood so that you can play a part in shaping the way forward. It’s also a card that you can’t use lightly (distinguishing obligation to dissent from inclination to troll), that one uses responsibly. It creates permission, enables wallflowers to speak up, allows ideas to travel, hopefully to achieve a greater spread of potential that can be actualised in the body corporate. It’s how I suppose we do 改善.

‘Obligation to dissent’ is useful when:

- in Asian society where speaking out (and worse, being proven wrong, which actually shouldn’t be such a big deal right) creates risk of labelling or calling attention to oneself, with personal and perception costs, or where we’ve stopped being dialectical for fear of upsetting the current balance

- in a large bureaucracy or any org with a strong cultural dominant or where leadership personality drives actions, there is risk of continuing to do the wrong thing given the present environment, with costs to the business outcome

- in individuals, for whom there is the simple fear of taking a stand, with costs to the overall potential of what could be

One may argue that the effectiveness of this principle may not generalize in terms of a country size population (since hires are largely intelligent, rational, overachievers), but I think at a social level, it still provides a way to achieve an equilibrium of outcomes, that outlying voices may be heard and unknown forces emerge earlier. Feel free to disagree, #obligationtodissent!