Constructive Disagreement: Debate Is Good
I’m a believer that the scope of the CEO’s role should narrow to roughly four facets as the company scales. One of the most important areas of focus centers around defining the culture. What are companies other than a long series of decisions? Since your culture in many ways will define how you make decisions, optimizing culture is of critical importance.
To me, the most productive culture for a business is one that I call “constructive disagreement”.
The concept of constructive disagreement centers around creating a dynamic where key stakeholders in an organization can and are compelled to disagree. The word constructive alludes to the need to raise issues, debate them and resolve them.
Getting Our Debate On
At the core of this philosophy is a focus on encouraging debate within your team. As humans we navigate the world wearing horse blinders; we interpret most dynamics based on the context of ONLY OUR perspective. For sales people, business decisions reverberate through a crowd of customer demands. Product leads see a decision colored by product simplicity and experience. Technologists compute the complexity of a given challenge. The fact that we see the world through our own lens is very limiting. And, left unchallenged, each and every member of a business’ leadership team would likely make different decisions tilting the company in favor of their respective responsibilities. The best companies, however, excel in all dimensions of their business: sales, customer service, product, tech and beyond.
In order to make decisions that reflect all of the various perspectives, stakeholders of each dimension of the business need to feel comfortable contributing their perspective to the decision.
While as individuals we all wear horse blinders, through our collective perspectives we can see the whole horizon.
Optimizing For Tension
The best way to set up this cultural paradigm is by facilitating a forum for disagreement. I want the leadership team at Kohort to disagree and debate as often as possible. So, how can I facilitate that?
The answer: a relatively flat hierarchical structure.
When I refer to hierarchical structure, I mean more than who-reports-to-whom. I mean who is given a voice at leadership team meetings. I mean weaving as many voices as possible into the key processes at the company.
To this end, at Kohort, each of our Team Leads:
- Reports directly to me,
- Participates on the daily leadership call as peers, and
- Is integrated in the highest level decisions across the company - product decision making and development process, the customer support process, marketing planning and beyond
These structures ensure that few Team Leads make major decisions in isolation. For example, our customer-facing teams debate the product roadmap with our product lead. Our product lead debates what and how we build features with our tech lead. And, so on. The output of those debates is more thoughtful decisions.
To highlight the significance of this, imagine an organizational structure where the head of product was subordinate in every way to the CTO (reporting to the CTO, not having a voice in the leadership meetings and having a limited role in decision making processes).
Would the product lead consistently engage in a healthy debate about their needs with their boss, the CTO? Probably not as frequently.
Would the demands of the tech team trump product consistently? Probably more often than if they were peers.
And, as you can imagine, over a volume of decisions, our company would have a tech-bias and a less-than-ideal product. I would conjecture that this model would hurt our company – since, simply put, we need to be good at everything.
This model also helps with ad hoc decisions that don’t have a clear owner. When I, the CEO, am faced with an obscure legal question or otherwise I ask the team of peers, each with their very different perspectives to debate the issue. Collectively this group is far more capable of making a sound decision than I might be able to in isolation. These ad hoc debates are only viable and productive though because the team is accustomed to discussing issues as peers. Evaluating ad hoc issues falls into their regular mode of operation.
In sum, your team has to be able to butt heads (frequently) to ensure that the broadest perspective is applied to each decision.
Keeping It Constructive
It’s easy to casually interchange the words debate and argument, but I think there is an important distinction. Debates are constructive in building toward a conclusion. Arguments don’t always get resolved. In debates both parties share a mutual respect for each other, keeping relationships in tact. Arguments often get heated and leave interpersonal relationships as road kill.
Here’s where the CEO plays an important role in building this culture. CEOs not only are responsible for leveling the playing field between stakeholders to ensure that they debate, but also for carrying the burden of acting as referee. As referee CEOs need to make sure that the nature and tone of the debates remain constructive in the short and long term. This means not only helping the team navigate each individual decision, but also facilitating conversations about how the team talks to each other to ensure that emotional scar tissue isn’t collecting within any stakeholder.
That’s A Wrap
There is no one-size-fits-all culture. But there are philosophies that should be consciously considered by CEOs. Figuring out culture as an afterthought is negligent and dangerous.
While there are lots of dimensions to culture, the culture of decision making is by far one of the most important.
My recommendation: Hire really smart people who know their respective fields very well. Encourage them to debate constructively. And, get out of the way.