Disagree well: creating a culture that embraces disagreement

One of the initial challenges of working together with a very good friend was that we had to learn to disagree. Sure, we’d had differences of opinion before. But without any real skin in the game, it was easy to just let them drop and move on. Founding a company and building a product certainly raised the stakes. Suddenly differences of opinion felt much harder to overcome and conversations became quite tense at times.

I knew from discussions about our culture and operating system, that we both agreed with the principle of “Disagree and Commit”, which — as Jeff Bezos explained in his  2016 Letter to Amazon Shareholders — is a way of making high-quality decisions quickly. Before Amazon, it appears to have been used at Intel and Sun Microsystems. The idea is that in order to make good decisions, people need to be comfortable disagreeing. But in order to execute brilliantly, it is necessary for people to commit to a decision once it is made, even if they disagreed with it. I was particularly interested in the first part: how do you make people more comfortable with disagreeing?

Disagreement is fundamental to creativity and innovation. The friction between different approaches leads to better solutions and achieves superior results. The process in which opposing ideas collide has been dubbed creative abrasion. Some organizations go so far as to hire people with opposing viewpoints and have them work together on projects.

The first rule of decision-making is that one does not make a decision unless there is a disagreement.

—Peter Drucker in the Effective Executive

The first step to disagreeing well is to recognize that disagreement is a good thing. It enables an environment where the best ideas win – or in the words of legendary investor and founder of Bridgewater Associates it creates an “idea meritocracy”. Enabling this type of culture has two prerequisites:  

  • Radical truthfulness or candor: the ability to directly challenge an idea while maintaining respect for the other person’s position
  • Transparency: Making information freely available to the people who need it

The tricky part is to create a culture where people feel comfortable disagreeing. They need an environment in which they feel safe and that the disagreement won’t lead to conflict. When the stakes are high, it’s difficult not to react emotionally to a challenge. Negative behaviors like avoidance or aggressiveness can emerge. For people to share their ideas they need to feel like those ideas will be heard and valued. In order to truly embrace disagreement people need to be encouraged to share their views. The mindset required in such a culture must include:

  • Curiosity to understand why differences of opinion exist
  • Openness to acknowledge you can be wrong and learn from competing ideas

One of the most memorable examples of a culture that embraces debate and candor is Pixar’s Brain Trust. The wildly successful film studio created a forum in which trusted peers provide feedback on a film at various stages of the production process. It’s recognized that the first version of a film always “sucks” and that the feedback from this group is one of the key mechanisms for transforming it into one of the hits Pixar has become known for. Pixar defends the culture of openness and candor religiously even telling the notoriously pushy Steve Jobs, who bankrolled the company in its early years, that he couldn’t come because it would ruin the vibe. Importantly, the Brain Trust has no authority. It is up to the director receiving the feedback to decide what to do about it.

For us, the key to better disagreements was to recognize that our objectives were aligned because as founders we both wanted the same thing. That recognition helped us assume good intentions and move past the initial emotional reaction to disagreement. We realized that many of our disagreements were due to how we were communicating rather than fundamental differences in our positions. Exploring the reasons behind the different positions is enlightening, allowing you to see the problem from a different angle. Merging the two viewpoints can lead to a solution that addresses the concerns of all parties.

Embracing disagreement not only made working more fun. I’m convinced that it has helped us make better decisions for our business. But in the end, we decided that “disagree and commit” needed a tweak, before we could adopt it. We changed it to “Disagree Well, Then Commit“.

Interested in the topic of disagreement? Read more on Trickle.app in the stream Disagree Well: The Art of Disagreeing for Improved Creativity and Performance.