Rowing in the wrong direction is OK
Harnessing the power of productive disagreement to avoid becoming stagnant
Clarity on mission and values is critical, but single-mindedness is often limiting
Healthy corporate cultures support diversity of thought and creative differences
When voices are marginalized, people notice and learn not to speak up
When people lose connection to an organization, they also lose conviction
Learn to distinguish between productive disagreement and delinquent behavior
The parable of rowing in the wrong direction
During my tenure working at USAA in the mid-2000s, we received regular updates from our CEO at the all-hands meetings that were broadcast. One of the most enduring images that then CEO Bob Davis showed was a depiction of several people together in a boat rowing in the same direction, with the last person in the back of the boat rowing in the opposite direction. The message was clear: don’t be the person “rowing in the wrong direction”. I do not know the genesis for this directive - clearly the CEO faced resistance that he did not appreciate - but ultimately the impact that the message had did more harm than good. While the CEO may have intended to smoke out saboteurs in our midst, the main impact was to stifle new ideas.
It is important to distinguish between challenging the mission or purpose of an organization - why it exists - from strategy and tactics - how it achieves goals. I’m not suggesting that a critical examination of your organization’s purpose, mission, and values is not important. But once there is agreement, everyone must be aligned. If everyone is working under a different set of beliefs and assumptions about what your organization is trying to accomplish its goals and what behaviors are tolerated, you will not succeed. Unity of purpose is important: the stronger everyone agrees with “the why”, the better position the organization is to go out and achieve its mission.
Plans are worthless, but planning is everything. -Dwight D. Eisenhower
This is distinct from discussion about strategy and tactics: disagreements in this arena often help to sharpen thinking by challenging colleagues and can ultimately lead to better results. Why? Because the act of planning is more important than the actual strategy or tactics themselves as this HBR article notes. There are some well-known quotes that speak to this phenomenon as well, including “no battle plan survives first contact with the enemy” and the famous Mike Tyson quote “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth”. To develop a sound strategy and make practical plans, you need to hear from a wide range of subject matter experts. You will likely never achieve full consensus, but ideally you will iterate through enough times that you identify an optimal result that balances all of the necessary tradeoffs and can gain support from everyone in your organization.
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Diversity of thought as an antidote to groupthink
When there is a strong directive that everyone in your organization needs to “row in the right direction”, this can be a recipe for groupthink. Groupthink is dangerous because it gives you the illusion of consensus, but in reality does not capture the full range of expertise because some people within the group are reluctant to speak up. If the collective wisdom and experience of the group members is not adequately captured, any strategies and tactics are likely to fall short of expectations, and these failures often get reinforced by the mindset of “I told you so” from those whose voices were marginalized. This path can quickly lead to retributions and recriminations, challenging your corporate culture and causing deep friction in the collective group.
There has been a lot of emphasis at many organizations over the past decade to establish employee resource groups (ERGs) to give a more formal voice to traditionally marginalized groups. Such groups help to create awareness and form bonds between employees. I have experienced firsthand that ERGs often have a side benefit of brining together people from different parts of the organization that otherwise might not have a need to interact. By connecting different team members that don’t normally work together but share a common objective of helping the organization achieve its mission, these social interactions can spark new ideas and lead to unexpected innovation. This creates a win-win: in addition to promoting diversity as an important value in its own right, it also results in new ideas and tangible benefits for the business. By focusing on the importance of creating a healthy corporate culture that values everyone in the organization, this allows people to connect and feel safe being their authentic self, which adds more voices to the mix when formulating plans.
Give people a voice & recognize need for choice
A diversity of backgrounds leads to a diversity of perspectives and, ultimately, diversity of thought. When properly recognized and captured, this greatly assists organizations by avoiding groupthink and preparing for a variety of opportunities and threats that will be present in the future. It is important to distinguish diversity of thought from truly disruptive behavior. Instead of rowing in the wrong direction, some people instead can make life difficult within your organization by “rocking the boat”. When these incidents arise, take a moment to understand the behaviors and underlying causes. Is this person acting with the best interests of the organization in mind, or are they putting themselves first? Do their actions fall in line with the organization’s values or not? Trying to ascertain the motivations of employees is essential: some tolerance for breaking the rules or being disruptive may be OK if the actions were well-intentioned. If so, some re-examination of those rules or processes may be called for. If not, disciplinary actions may be warranted.
Finally, there is a need to balance gathering input and a variety of perspectives with making decisions to avoid analysis paralysis. It is important to recognize who should be part of the decision making process and the role that each individual or group should play. Ray Dalio has written extensively on this topic and has been a strong advocate for radical transparency at work to foster a corporate culture where “the best ideas win” - ignoring title or status. In fact, spending time thinking about how decisions are made in your organization is worthy of deeper contemplation and examination. How are decisions made and who makes them? Does everyone have a chance to provide input in an unbiased way? Techniques that allow everyone to indicate their preferences through some sort of system: online feedback, putting sticky dots next to ideas, etc. without knowing where others stand in advance should be considered.
Once a decision-making process has been established, it is important for people to understand the need to execute once debate has been cut off. Ultimately, choices need to be made and actions must be taken. If people feel that they have a voice in the planning process, they are likely to fully support the choice in their day-to-day actions.
Does everyone in your organization have a voice in decisions that affect them? Do you have a formal and informal mechanism to encourage employee feedback? How well does your organization tolerate diverse viewpoints? Are meetings in your organization full of productive disagreement or silent dissent? Are they any cautionary tales of employees rowing in the wrong direction? Are leaders in your organization open to constructive feedback? What topics are the “elephants in the room” that everyone is aware of and no one wants to address?