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Invite Opposition July 20, 2009

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Organizational dynamics.
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This one starts with an item from Ada Gonzalez, Ph.D, owner of Logos Noesis, who asked a question on LinkedIn that looked interesting to me. Ms. Gonzalez’s original post on her blog can be found at http://www.logosnoesis.com/blog/dr_ada/how_diversity_thought_can_be_competitive_advantage

Here’s the question posed by Ms. Gonzalez:

“Following the thought of a NY Times article, I posit in my blog that organizations that have a culture open to outside ideas and a system for vetting and acting on them to convert them into products and services have a competitive advantage. Have you ever tried to harness diversity of thought in your organization? What has been your experience? What makes it easier for you to be open to diversity of thought? What makes it difficult?”

And here’s my reply:

“I strongly believe that diversity of thought is a source of competitive advantage. Criticism makes ideas better. There are too many historical examples of disastrous lemming-like behavior in organizations that are afraid to express views that run counter to the “wisdom” of people in senior positions of leadership.

“Often the difficulty is in finding people within one’s extended network who can take a contrarian position and remain constructive. Unfortunately leaders and managers tend to surround themselves with people who think like they do, and the inherent positional authority gap between managers and subordinates makes it hard for some to “speak truth to power.” Those who do speak out are sometimes branded as troublemakers and disruptive to team unity, and to be fair there are people who seem more interested in subversion. Finally there’s the danger of group-think, particularly in brainstorming activities or other gatherings that strive for consensus but too often settle for the lowest common denominator.

“I’ve tried to signal my openness to other views by encouraging people to share their concerns and making it clear that there will be no retribution. I also stay alert to non-verbal cues that may indicate passive opposition, and set aside my own natural defensiveness when people express active opposition. I’ve become convinced that 100% alignment is a red flag indicating that risks have not been adequately explored.

“I have been very influenced by the book The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki which convincingly argues that better results are obtained from diversity of opinion and independence.”

I’ll add a couple of additional thoughts here:

Diversity of thought comes from diversity of experience. When a team is made up of people who come from similar backgrounds, it’s less likely they will represent unique perspectives. Unfortunately, functions such as R&D and marketing and HR and finance tend to attract the same kind of people, making it harder to find “outside the box” viewpoints. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist; it does require more effort to find them.

I’ve even asked suppliers for their input. We used to evaluate our suppliers using a multi-dimensional scoring system, and I wanted to turn the table around and ask our suppliers to evaluate us as a customer, providing useful suggestions that improved our working relationship.

I still think the hardest step is inviting opposition in the first place. Leaders want to believe that their ideas have value, and that their vision for the future is compelling and should be immediately accepted. It’s hard to hear that they may not be as obvious to others. It’s not easy to set aside our own ego and admit that others have useful contributions. Another benefit: incorporating input from stakeholders makes it more likely that they will buy into the result.

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Comments»

1. Reminder to invite opposition « The Daily Strategy - July 20, 2009

[…] to invite opposition From Tim Rodgers blog today comes advice from an article to invite opposition. “I strongly believe that diversity of thought is a source of competitive advantage. Criticism […]

2. Julie Wininger - July 21, 2009

Hi Tim,

I very much enjoy your blog. You have very insightful and thought provoking entries. This entry was especially timely as I was just articulating this very concept about the need for diversity of thought and how, when done well, it actually makes a team and organization stronger. I had just finish searching for articles on just this topic when I took a break and read email and saw the announcement for your new blog entry. Kismet? Anyway, thanks for the timely post.

Julie Wininger


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