Have Wonderful Arguments

I’m not suggesting that your development team or your leadership team should argue about everything: that certainly wouldn’t be productive.

On the other hand, if you’re not having spirited debates about at least some topics, then you’re probably not working as effectively as you could be. One set of authors described this as the “Nirvana AntiPattern”:

The typical, and primary, root cause of [the Nirvana] AntiPattern is the misguided notion that conflict is bad, and therefore should be avoided at all costs. In reality, conflict in the form of tension … is a necessary part of any difficult task that involves intelligent people who care about their work.

Just because such dialogue is effective doesn’t mean it will be easy, though. Here’s the way a past president of IBM described the individuals he favored for such discussions:

I never hesitated to promote someone I didn’t like. The comfortable assistant, the nice guy you like to go on fishing trips with, is a great pitfall. Instead I looked for those sharp, scratchy, harsh, almost unpleasant guys who see and tell you about things as they really are. If you can get enough of them around you and have patience enough to hear them out, there is no limit to where you can go.

Author and consultant Craig Weber makes the point that successful teams need to build what he calls Conversational Capacity, and that one way to do so is to incorporate a four-step process into their important discussions. From the perspective of one participant, often a leader, it goes like this:

  1. Candor Skills
    • Advocate your position clearly and succinctly
    • Illustrate your position by sharing the thinking behind it (both your data and your interpretation).
  2. Curiosity skills
    • Test your views. Seek out what you might be missing. Encourage others to share views that contrast with yours. Hunt for disconfirming information.
    • Inquire into the views of others and actively explore their thinking, especially when their perspectives differ from your own.

His point is not to formalize your discussions along these lines, but to check periodically that you’re not leaving out any of these key elements.

Note that the role of leadership in these sorts of discussions can sometimes be controversial. In order to scrupulously avoid any possibility of intimidation, coercion or micromanagement, some people assert that leaders should not contribute to or engage in these sorts of passionate discussions. However, this position seems to assume that your leaders know so little about the business that they have nothing worthwhile to contribute. This position also leaves open the question of who makes a final decision, in the absence of group consensus.

There certainly may be cases where particular managers are so clueless, or so overbearing, that they need to be prohibited from inclusion in these sorts of discussions, but in my opinion this sort of policy should not be enshrined as an organizational norm.

I believe it is far better to have leaders and others passionately engaged in discussions about important decisions, and to have both able to listen to others’ opinions and change their minds when appropriate.

Jobs: What I do all day is meet with teams of people and work on ideas and solve problems to make new products, to make new marketing programs, whatever it is.

Mossberg: And are people willing to tell you you’re wrong?

Jobs: (laughs) Yeah.

Mossberg: I mean, other than snarky journalists, I mean people that work for…

Jobs: Oh, yeah, no we have wonderful arguments.

Mossberg: And do you win them all?

Jobs: Oh no I wish I did. No, you see you can’t. If you want to hire great people and have them stay working for you, you have to let them make a lot of decisions and you have to, you have to be run by ideas, not hierarchy. The best ideas have to win, otherwise good people don’t stay.

Mossberg: But you must be more than a facilitator who runs meetings. You obviously contribute your own ideas.

Jobs: I contribute ideas, sure. Why would I be there if I didn’t?

Next: Show Rather than Tell