Kill The Elephants In The Room Before They Kill You.

Earlier this year I wrote about the need to tackle organizational debt, which I described as “the accumulation of changes that leaders should have made but didn’t.” But why do leaders shy away from pushing for the most important changes? Why do people sitting around a table keep their doubts to themselves? Much of the hesitation boils down to conflict avoidance and always trying to keep everyone happy.

A common mistake I observe in leaders of teams big and small is to aspire for peace as a default. You should be challenging peace as a default. Create an environment where people can withstand a fight and engage in friction as it arises. Rather than passively surf the whims of peoples’ hesitations to take action, bring the conflict to the surface with questions like:

  • “Let’s debate this out — what is the worst thing that will happen if we launch a bit early? Is scrambling a little bit after launch really worse than punting the project for additional months?”
  • “Who exactly claims we’re not ready to launch this? What, specifically, needs to be done for us to be ready?”

Ultimately, you want a team that values conflict as a means to making bolder decisions and taking the required risks for a more exciting end. Disagreement is great, so long as the team shares conviction when a decision is made.

I like how former RISD president and one of my long-time mentors John Maeda once observed: “A good team does a lot of friendly front-stabbing instead of backstabbing. Issues are resolved by knowing what they are.“ Confrontation tends to be most needed when it is most uncomfortable. It’s the truly tough issues, the ones most likely to advance our potential the most, that we avoid. I am still determined to get a sign someday for my office that simply states, “No Elephants.” To eliminate all “elephants in the room” your team must commit to as much front-stabbing as possible.