In order to foster dynamic disagreements and tap into the well of creativity they open up, there are a few guidelines.
1. Don't rush to solutions. In the fast-paced world of get-it-done-yesterday we often want the disagreement to be out of the way so we can move on. This can be exacerbated by our discomfort with disagreements and tension. Both can have us miss the valuable sub-themes and resources behind the opposing camps' arguments that, themselves, may become part of the resolution. Take the time to engage in disagreement by hearing both sides, deciding on a process and sticking with it until resolution.
2. Be aware that the trickle-down effect drowns the fire of opposition. If there is little or no disagreement and debate in your team, you might inspect how you, the leader, are being. How often do people put forth ideas only to have you take the course you had decided on long before? Do you feel a need to add to or modify the team's suggestions? Both will squash healthy conflict.
3. Always keep the goal in mind. One client, the CEO of a cancer-detection medical device company, who encouraged and even fostered regular debate, would intervene in those arguments he felt were going amok or wherein the parties were more invested in being right than in getting the best solution. His show-stopping line was simply, "Is this curing cancer?" It was the one value they all--researchers, physicists and salespeople--agreed they were passionate about. Having a clear mission can pull even the most divergent parties forward into a new solution.
Successful partnerships are not happily-ever-after fairy tales, nor are they dominant/submissive pairings of unequal participants. Truly successful relationships recognize their differences and are committed to working through those differences in the knowledge that each resolution makes them stronger and more resilient. If and when disagreements degenerate into power struggles or dominant/submissive hierarchies, no one wins. But embracing the differences, actually seeking out contrarians among the rank and file of employees and managers, can only make the company stronger and more resilient.
My clients have come to an agreement that they want to stay together, and that doing so will mean other, bigger disagreements. But they are now looking forward (somewhat) to those passionate disputes as the stuff of success. Dynamic disagreements are like the primordial stew of boiling amino acids from which life first emerged.
Good organizations become great when they seek out and rely on a "team of rivals." So let's not be so hasty to rush toward agreements. Take time to engage in the richer dynamic of powerful disagreements.
Kris Girrell is a senior partner with Camden Consulting Group.
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