Stop Ducking Hard Choices and Start Nurturing Dissent

Last Updated Oct 6, 2010 5:05 PM EDT

Strategy is about making choices. About what to do (and how and for whom) and about what not to do. That's Cliché No. 1.

Cliché No. 2: These are hard choices.

And Cliché No. 3: When it comes to strategy, everyone must get with the program. The price of strategy is eternal vigilance against its foes, entropy and apathy.

Clichés become clichés because they're true. But because they're so familiar, we start taking their truth for granted and leave their implications unexamined; they become like childhood prayers repeated in agnostic adulthood. Just about every strategy retreat I've ever attended has begun with a solemn oath to make choices, including the hard ones about what not to do. But it has ended with a kumbaya around a corporate campfire at which everyone knows that at least a few hard choices were not even discussed. Harmony -- Cliché No. 3 -- has trumped the dissonance implicit in Cliché No. 2.

This is not entirely bad. "Hard choice" is often a euphemism for "layoff" and, especially in these times, I'm in favor of anything that makes anyone think twice about layoffs. But thinking twice is not the same as not thinking at all.

Hard choices are hard because people have difficulty managing conflict -- particularly dissent, and particularly in small groups where everybody knows everybody else. The boundary between alignment and groupthink can be fuzzy indeed. There's plenty of evidence that the presence of dissenters leads to better decisions. UC Berkeley professor Charlan Nemeth has shown this in many settings, as has Brooke Harrington, a professor at Copenhagen Business School. But there's also plentiful evidence that groups don't want to go there. (For a superb discussion of the problem, check out Jeremy Mercer's new article "Nurturing Dissent" in Ode Magazine.)

Dissent gets stifled because we lack good rules for fighting. We're afraid it will cross the line into chaos and leave us lost, bruised, and worse off than before. Yet think about some recent fights that seemingly didn't get fought:

  • Are we cutting things too close out there on Deepwater Horizon?
  • Should we get out in front of that sudden acceleration thing, or work on it quietly and hope we fix it before there's a fuss?
  • Should we reduce our credit-default-swaps portfolio and build up our balance sheet?
A couple of former colleagues, Saj-nicole Joni and Damon Beyer, have written intelligently about battles worth waging in a book called The Right Fight. Here are their rules of engagement:
  1. Good fights should be about important topics.
  2. They should be about seizing the future, not about assigning blame for the past.
  3. They should involve some aspiration or ideal that both sides agree is worth achieving.
  4. They should not require the death, real or metaphorical, of one of the adversaries; as Joni and Beyer say, they should be "sport, not war."
It seems to me that fights like these need to be staged, at least until you get the hang of them. That's what Jack Welch did with the WorkOut process at GE, which started as a highly theatrical way of allowing lower-level employees to confront their bosses with ideas to improve efficiency -- and thereby, not incidentally, challenge the company's overweening hierarchy. Scenario-planning exercises and games pitting Red Teams vs. Blue Teams have the same effect of turning strategic conflict into a game.

Techniques like those can at least make sure that conflicting ideas are surfaced. But what can we do to make sure they aren't quickly buried again?