Tuesday, October 02, 2007

The dissent-free organization: a worst practice

There's an excellent item by Garry Emmons in Harvard Business School's Working Knowledge site this week on candor--or more accurately, a lack of it, and what damage it can do to organizations. Here's a quote:

Consider the costs to organizations, large and small, when dissent does not or cannot surface: Abjuring rigorous debate about its merits, a youthful president John F. Kennedy essentially rubber-stamped a 1961 plan to invade Cuba at the Bay of Pigs, resulting in one of the biggest U.S. foreign policy fiascoes in decades. During a 1996 commercial expedition to the summit of Mt. Everest, several climbers, including two of the world's most experienced professionals, died in part because junior team members didn't speak up when their expert leaders ignored their own core operating principles surrounding safety. In 2003, NASA engineers were reluctant to challenge long-held beliefs that foam strikes incurred during the launch of the space shuttle Columbia posed no risk to its fuselage.

I can't count how many times in my career I have swallowed what I should have said--and I was always considered a loudmouth. How many mistakes could have been avoided? Lack of dissent is terribly frequent within senior management teams, where respect for (or fear of) the CEO, or an unwillingness to step into colleagues' sandboxes, results in meetings full of good feelings and no debates. (We know that X-Teams don't do this.)

Why do people shut down when they should pipe up? It's entirely rational. Writes Emmons:

[HBS Professor Amy] Edmondson says this reluctance to speak up stems variously from fears that superiors will not like the idea or that it may appear to criticize the status quo, which most people find reassuringly familiar or dangerous to challenge. Edmondson sums up the mental calculation this way: "The potential costs to me for speaking out seem reasonably certain and somewhat immediate; the potential benefit to me for speaking out seems rather uncertain and definitely long-range."

I've also been responsible for quashing dissent. Whether due to wishing to move faster, or to protect my turf, I didn't create a very good environment for those who disagreed with my ideas. It's appalling, in retrospect. It should be somewhat comforting that I've got a lot of company in this. But it's not.

So, to improve your business, get your team debating, disagreeing, even arguing. Here's former Medtronic CEO Bill George quoted in the Working Knowledge article:

During the decision-making process, George explains, this means asking probing questions and insisting that managers present each situation in objective terms, rather than with a positive spin.

"You must acknowledge and thank those who disagree by telling them that they made the discussion, and hence the ultimate decision, much better," George says. "You need to reward and promote the mavericks or else the organization will lose its creative edge. You try to create tension inside because the outside challenge is so great."