I often talk about the importance of achieving consensus. But make no mistake, I don’t mean that everyone should acquiesce to leadership, or the loudest person in the room. Conflict is an important part of collaboration, and tension is a vital part of the decision-making process.
With that in mind, I love this old quote:
“I take it we are all in complete agreement on the decision here? Then, I propose we postpone further discussion of this matter until our next meeting to give ourselves time to develop disagreement and perhaps gain some understanding of what this decision is about.”
Alfred Sloan, the former CEO of General Motor
Sloan knew — and appreciated — the role friction could play. In a study on conflict and decision-making cited by the Harvard Business Review, participants were divided into three groups based on different work styles. Those assigned to “debate” yielded 25% more ideas than the two other groups.
So how can your organization respectfully disagree and arrive at better outcomes?
Give everyone a voice
As I’ve said on this blog many times over, no one person is smarter than the collective intellect of an entire room of people. This is the basic concept of room intelligence. If you’re going to go to the trouble of assembling a group of people, you might as well hear what they have to say.
Of course, if you want their honest opinions, you’ll first have to instill in them a sense of psychological safety. This means fostering a culture that doesn’t punish team members for taking risks, asking questions, challenging authority, etc. When you connect as peers — versus through a power-based dynamic — people will explore the problem(s) at hand without letting a fear of reprisal limit what they might say.
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Once you’ve achieved this level of trust, I recommend a few exercises that can help you unlock room intelligence:
Fist To Five
This technique is an amazingly quick gut check of where your team is consensus-wise. In Fist To Five exercises, the team leader — or meeting facilitator — makes a statement and asks the group to show their level of agreement by holding up a number of fingers.
- Five fingers: I couldn’t agree more. I will champion this.
- Four fingers: I’m fine with this.
- Three fingers: I have minor issues we can resolve later.
- Two fingers: I have minor issues we need to resolve now.
- One finger: I have major issues we need to resolve now.
- Fist: I couldn’t disagree more. I will block this.
When conducting Fist To Five, it’s important to realize that an abundance of people showing two fingers or less means you have a way to go to achieve consensus.
When there are many divergent ideas on how to move forward, 25/10 is a great sorting exercise developed by the Liberating Structures team. It’s relatively simple to conduct, too. Just invite a large group to a room where the tables and chairs have been pushed aside. When everyone’s arrived, hand each person a single index card and begin the idea sorting process.
- Ask attendees to write a bold idea and a first step on their index card.
- Set a timer for a few minutes and ask everyone to mill about and pass their cards around.
- Ask attendees to rate the idea in their hands by writing a score of 1 – 5 on the back of the card.
- Repeat the “Mill and Pass” and “Discuss and Score” steps four more times.
- Ask participants to add up the scores on the back of the cards they’re holding [if someone has a card with more or less than five scores, they can calculate the score average and multiply that by five]. Then countdown from 25 and ask those with that number to come forward and read the idea on their card. Stop when the top ten ideas have been identified.
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Before dismissing everyone, take a few moments to ask the group what caught their attention with those ideas. This can provide useful context around their scoring. Note & Vote
This can be a great way to cull the top ten of a 25/10 session. Note & Vote, pioneered by Google Ventures, can also work as a standalone exercise that evaluates possible solutions discussed in a previous meeting.
- Give meeting attendees a sticky note and ask them to write down their favorite idea.
- Ask everyone to place their sticky note on a whiteboard.
- Organize the sticky notes so the same ideas are organized together.
- Collectively discuss the pros and cons of the three ideas that have the most support.
While Fist To Five demonstrates how far apart your group is — and 25:10 helps you arrive at a slimmed-down consideration set — Note & Vote can quickly show you what’s resonating. As a result, you effectively get a heat map of what people gravitate towards.
Embrace different perspectives
What GM’s Alfred Sloan advocated for is essentially the root of a philosophy called Integrative Thinking, introduced by the University of Toronto’s Roger L. Martin in 2007. If Martin’s name sounds familiar to you, it’s because he’s also the originator of Design Thinking.
Similar to how Design Thinking balances analytical and intuitive thinking, Integrative Thinking helps its practitioners balance two opposing ideas instead of choosing one at the expense of the other. According to Martin, and his colleague Jennifer Riel, opposing ideas are only a problem when treated as such.
Here, in a nutshell, is this thinking behind Integrative Thinking:
Stage 1: Articulate opposing models
- Identify two extreme and opposing answers to a problem [a third distinct answer is permissible].
- Explain, in a few sentences, what each model would look like in practice so an observer can understand the essence.
- Explore each side in greater detail by asking who the key players are (those people most affected by the issue).
- Determine the benefits that the potential solution offers the key players.
- Work in order and find reasons to love each model, identifying what makes it work and what’s valuable about it [as you consider each model, forget the others exist].
Stage 2: Examine the models
Use these questions to evaluate your well-defined opposing models:
- How are they similar? Consider how the benefit is produced differently and how it might be produced in a new model. Then consider the tension between the models.
- What assumptions underlie each model and what are the crucial causal relationships?
- Has the problem you are trying to solve shifted during the analysis? Which elements of each model do you want to keep in the new model?
Stage 3: Generate possibilities
Reflect on your thinking by asking yourself these questions:
- Under what conditions could one model actually create one core benefit of the other?
- How could a new model be created using a small building block from each model?
- How might the problem be looked at in a new way, so that each model could be applied to a different part of the problem?
Stage 4: Assess prototypes
- Test out your ideas and create the data you need by sharing the new models with customers.
- Ask for feedback and suggestions, co-creating better prototypes together.
Obviously, what’s above is the briefest of introductions to the concept of Integrative Thinking. For a much deeper dive, I encourage you to read Martin’s book on the topic and the follow-up he co-authored with Jennifer Riel.
Check out ‘The Rarity of Truths’ podcast featuring Jennifer here.
I wholeheartedly believe capturing and discussing differing viewpoints is what makes meetings valuable. To gather, and simply nod in agreement isn’t just a waste of time, it’s a squandering of room intelligence.
“If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking.”General George Patton
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