Alfred Sloan, when he ran General Motors in the 1920s and 1930s, would refuse to make a decision at a meeting if no one could argue a strong case against what was being proposed. He felt that if no one had any objections to what was being decided, it was because they had not thought long and hard enough about the question under consideration.
— Jeffrey Pfeffer. Managing With Power: Politics and Influence in Organizations (p. 323)
Diversity in Counsel*
Alfred Sloan understood that the best ideas — along with the best decisions — are forged in the crucibles of healthy conflict. If there are no objections leading up to a decision, then either people just aren’t trying hard enough or your team isn’t working on hard enough problems. Clear thinking, innovation, and good decisions depend on diverse perspectives and opposing points of view.
Healthy conflict can be a tense arena. It takes bold leaders to create a safe space where everyone can be heard. And it takes confident followers to speak their mind even when they hold a minority point of view.
Healthy conflict works best when the team is built on a foundation of trust — and the best way to build trust is to survive a few rounds of healthy conflict. Circular, I know. Go figure! Remember to play hard, and play fair and you’ll begin to see the power of bringing out everyone’s best thinking.
Unity in Command
Healthy conflict is just a means to an end. The goal is to make good decisions and move on.
This is where the leadership part really comes in. After ensuring that everyone feels heard, you as the leader, have to choose a way forward. This is not easy — especially after an engaging round of conversation. By design, you have just created a hornet’s nest of healthy conflict. The next step in the decision making process is to tame that nest and make sure that everyone can get behind a single decision moving forward.
That is, the next step is “unity in command.” Get confirmation from everyone on your team that they will support a single decision. Consensus is not the goal — at least not initially. People can get behind decisions — despite their objections — as long as they feel heard. If you can’t reach this point then you have not yet reached a decision.
What is a Decision?
It’s tempting to think that because you have made up your mind then the decision is made. However, if certain members of your team continue to pursue alternate paths or espouse alternate directions, then the decision has not yet been made! You may have thought that you made the decision because in your mind it is clear, but you may just have a false start. Back to the round table until everyone can get behind you. That is, until you have unity in command, you do not have a decision.
Practice drawing out other people’s points of view. If no one on your team or in your meeting has contrasting opinions then appoint someone to be the designated ‘devil’s advocate.’ Remember Alfred Sloan: If there are no objections then you are not thinking hard enough about the problem or you are not working on hard enough problems.
*The phrase “Diversity in counsel, unity in command” is attributed to Cyrus the Great — self-declared King of the World as far back as 600 BC. Cyrus conquered most of the known world at that time but did not impose his religion onto his conquered lands and did not kill their leaders. He understood the power of listening to, and integrating, many great ideas.