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“Don’t agree and agree.” When Jeff Bezos says this, it sounds so simple.
The Amazon founder is known to encourage productive debate within his companies. For Bezos, it’s not about reaching consensus, it’s about creating coherence. IN his words“I know we don’t agree on this, but would you bet me on this?”
Encouraging a culture of vigorous research may mean balancing a fine line between encouraging discussion and preventing derailment, but it’s worth poking through this needle: research by CPP Inc., workplace conflicts cost American businesses $359 billion annually in wasted resources and loss of productivity. On the other hand, there is an incalculably high price of groupthink, an idyllic culture that neglects important information, bypasses real analysis, and leads to lackluster decisions. This is especially dangerous in a slow economy, when companies must use all their competitive advantages.
As an engineer, I’m used to productive disagreement and a fact-based approach to decision making. This is how engineering culture works. But as a CEO, I’ve found that cultivating this culture within a company can be more of a challenge.
The right structure and a bit of humility can bolster the spirit of a productive debate, leading to better decisions and better outcomes. Here’s how:
RELATED: The Art of Having a Productive Argument
1. First of all – install the gate posts
It’s impossible to weigh the options if you don’t know where the goalposts are. That’s why the first step to encouraging healthy discussions among team members is to establish common ground.
It starts with a clear company mission and goals, but goes deeper than these general principles. For every decision we contemplate, it must be clear what problem we are solving and what success looks like, and we must be clear about any other parameters so that we can correctly evaluate possible courses of action.
If the discussion stalls or the debate gets stuck, we can look back and see how this decision fits into the bigger picture. In a startup looking to increase shareholder value, every decision must meet this basic test: Are we adding value to the company?
2. Sort your debates
The most important element of an effective debate is deciding when not to have it.
Not every decision deserves a big conversation or dueling white papers. I estimate that 70% of our decisions have low enough stakes, so it’s best to just choose a course of action and adjust if necessary.
But high-stakes decisions such as launches, acquisitions, and fundamental strategies require careful consideration of all viable options. McKinsey researchers have established correctly pointed out that limiting the contribution to these “big stakes” leads to substandard solutions. Knowing when to speed up and slow down decision making is fundamental to a CEO.
3. Beware of HiPPOs
Without careful planning, the opinion of the highest paid person tends to carry the most weight in any discussion. Leaders must be aware of this effect of HiPPO and work to eliminate it. For example, if I am in a room during a discussion, I avoid stifling the debate by being the last to speak my mind.
Research consistently shows that diversity of opinion improves performance, but sometimes team members need a push to express a minority opinion rather than go with the flow. Leaders can overcome this “approval conspiracy” by appointing someone to argue the pros and cons of each option being considered. I often ask team members to write them before group discussions. If the discussion gets sidetracked, I ask everyone to put on their “shareholder hat” and take a second look at the problem we’re trying to solve.
On the subject: Conflict between team members can lead to better results
4. Set an example of productive disagreement from above
Encouraging a culture of active discussion requires consistent modeling. People unfamiliar with this kind of workplace may need to see a productive debate in action once or twice to get comfortable and participate in it themselves.
In my companies, new team members quickly learn that our culture encourages dissent backed by logic and evidence, even at the highest levels of the company, but not conflict based on selfishness or personal agendas. The turning point in this process is the first time a new team member disagrees with a major decision. This is my chance to show my receptivity to new ideas and humility when faced with the best.
5. Know when to call
Ideally, the right course of action emerges through discussion, but sometimes the picture remains unclear. In such cases, someone has to make the final choice. Every dispute needs a judge.
Court appeals can be complex. They require experience, knowledge and a deep understanding of the situation. You won’t always do them right, but you must have the courage to do them.
Just don’t confuse courage with pride. In an organization that values productive disagreement, there is no place for “because I said so.” Cultures of management and control hostile to innovation. I encourage my leaders to disclose the reasons for their decisions in order to build trust and ensure that decisions are made in the best interests of the team and the company.
Related: 3 Ways to Use Conflict to Strengthen Your Startup
7. Confirm (and commit to return)
This brings us back to Bezos: once a decision is made, the team must fully adhere to the action plan. By encouraging team members to make decisions even when they disagree, a company can move forward and take risks that will ultimately lead to growth and success.
When a small group of Amazon executives originally proposed the Amazon Prime program, they faced strong internal resistance over the cost and potential risks. Bezos urged critics to act despite their reservations, and today Prime is a key driver of Amazon’s growth.
But it is also important to regularly review the effectiveness of key decisions. For example, after much deliberation, we recently decided on a go-to-market strategy for our new GitOps product. We will continue to ask tough questions every quarter to make sure we’re on the right track.
It is not easy to create and maintain a corporate culture that encourages rigorous debate within the parameters of the company’s goals and values. But it’s the only choice for innovative companies that have to juggle high-stakes decisions. As leaders, we must set the table and take responsibility.