In the early days of a close-knit team of similarly experienced people you have this amazing ability to make decisions quickly. Remember that? You need to move fast and not sweat the small things. You have really important challenges to solve and you accept that getting some things wrong initially is very much ok.
As your team grows into many teams…guilds…chapters…or whatever (no judgement), you find that each of these small decisions are taking longer to make. You start to see that the team is spending more time discussing and debating these small decisions and you start to wonder if you should be doing something about it.
The thing that tends to happen at this point is that consensus has become the order of the day.
There is this weird belief that consensus is a great thing to have in a group of people. I guess it is, but it only happens if the group is very, very small. Why? Because instances of consensus trend towards zero as the size of the group increases.
This is why many teams have discovered an alternative approach - invert the problem and instead of chasing consensus, look for dissent. If you look at the Netflix Culture and Valued Behaviours you will find this resonates with their behaviour of “Informed Captains”
For every significant decision, we identify an informed captain of the ship who is an expert in their area. They are responsible for listening to other people’s views and then making a judgment call on the right way forward. We avoid decisions by committee, which would slow us down and diffuse responsibility…
…On big strategic issues, the captain farms for dissent and other alternatives to ensure they are truly informed. Dissent can be difficult, which is why we make an effort to stimulate discussion…We don’t wait for consensus or vote by committee, nor do we drive to rapid, uninformed decision making…The bigger the decision, the more extensive the debate. Afterwards, as the impact becomes clearer, we reflect on the decision and see how we could do even better in the future.
Similarly, Amazon discuss how they “bias for action” and “disagree and commit”
Speed matters in business. Many decisions and actions are reversible and do not need extensive study. We value calculated risk taking.
Leaders are obligated to respectfully challenge decisions when they disagree, even when doing so is uncomfortable or exhausting. Leaders have conviction and are tenacious. They do not compromise for the sake of social cohesion. Once a decision is determined, they commit wholly.
I really love the term “farming for dissent”. It recognises that there is work involved in getting people to speak up and that it is an active, not passive, approach.
In Amazon’s case this idea of reversible decisions is best described by the term “one way door vs two way door”. I’ve found this approach really useful in evaluating the risk of making a particular decision.
How can farming for dissent go wrong?
The key thing to remember is that dissent is not about being contrarian. It’s not about being difficult or awkward. It’s about being informed and having a different perspective.
Another failure mode of this approach is that it often favours the “loudest voice in the room”. Being loud and opinionated is not the same as being informed and having a different perspective. It’s important to make sure that you are hearing from all voices in the room and that you are giving people the space to be heard. This is a skill that leaders need to develop.
I firmly believe that you need to have some level of confidence in your proposal before you put it out there for broad dissent. Why? Because physcological safety is a basic need and we all feel a little impostor syndrome and self-doubt. Also some people can suck at delivering constructive feedback.
The answer is to socialise your ideas with a wing-person or two. This is a great way to get some feedback and to build confidence in your ideas. It’s also a great way to get some feedback on how you are presenting your ideas. You can figure out how best to land the message and how to make sure you are heard.
I often form strong opinions after layers of socialising my thoughts through consecutive circles of trust. By the end I have stronger reasoning and greater confidence.
So how do I know I’ve made an informed decision?
Basically you are looking for the goldilocks effect of feedback. You want to make sure that you have enough feedback to make an informed decision but not so much that you are paralysed by it.
Don’t just stick to your wing-person or your own echo chamber and actively seek dissention. Discard what is irrelevant and focus on the feedback that challenges your assumptions.
Consensus has broken many great organisations. Try to invert the model, seek feedback and farm for dissent. Then commit to a decision, document it, and move on.