Disagree and Commit: The importance of disagreement in decision making
Learn the management principle that would help you avoid the consensus trap and make better and faster decisions.
‘Disagree and Commit’ is a management principle that encourages alignment and goal achievement in a company. As with many of the pioneering management principles in the IT industry, it originates backs to when Andy Grove was the CEO of Intel.
The ‘Disagree and Commit’ principle has a two-pronged objective:
To encourage the team to disagree when making an important decision
To unite the team in committing to the decision once it has been made
Disagreeing: Encouraging conflict
Why would we want to encourage disagreement when making a decision? In order to make the decision more effective.
To illustrate the importance of disagreement in decision-making, Peter Drucker, who is widely considered the godfather of management, tells a story about Alfred Sloan, the man who, in the 1930s, turned General Motors into the biggest company in the world.
The story, as told by Drucker, begins in a meeting with the advisory board of General Motors in which an important decision had to be made. Upon speaking to everyone in attendance and realizing that they all agreed with the original proposal, Sloan said:
“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 the decision is all about.” — Alfred Sloan.
The Consensus Trap
By doing this, Sloan was trying to avoid the Consensus Trap. The Consensus Trap goes as follows: although in theory, it seems as though everyone in the meeting is in agreement, in reality:
The majority disagrees, but simply keep quiet
The decision is so important that nobody wants to assume full responsibility
Everyone wants to get the meeting over and done with as soon as possible
We can encourage disagreement and avoid the consensus trap with one easy technique: interpret silence as a negative and ask every person in the meeting clearly if they agree with the decision.
Silence during a meeting should never be taken to mean that those in attendance accept the results of the meeting. We must make sure that everyone present agrees by asking them clearly to say their point of view out loud.
But the fact remains that sometimes people will say whatever they need to say in order to end the meeting. That’s where the second part of the technique comes in: committing.
Committing: Executing the decision
Committing means that whatever final decision is made, the team must do whatever they can to implement it. ‘Disagreeing and Committing’ achieves this by making everyone at the meeting responsible for ensuring the work gets done.
But why would people implement a decision they didn’t agree with? Firstly, because everyone at the meeting has had the opportunity to express their opinion and has been listened to. Even though their point of view may be at odds with the final decision, it is easier for them to accept it knowing that they have at least had their voice heard, and even, perhaps, that their initial ideas were wrong.
That’s not all. If we actively disagree with the decision, the last thing we want is for it to fail because it was badly implemented. By this token, the more we oppose an idea, the harder we work to bring it to fruition. Andy Grover himself said:
“If you disagree with an idea, you should work especially hard to implement it well because that way when it fails you’ll know it was a bad idea. Not bad execution.” — Andy Grove.
The great thing about the ‘Disagree and Commit’ principle is that, when done correctly, it assures the best possible result for the business:
Even if we were wrong, we have still in some way contributed to the best possible decision being made.
If we were right, then we know the weaker ideas have been discarded in the shortest time possible
Thus, we avoid the worst possible scenario, in which a small minority feels they have contributed to making a decision but the rest of the team aren’t compelled to implement the decision because they don’t support it.
‘Disagree and Commit’ speeds up decision making
Another interesting result of this technique is that it also avoids that we invest a lot of time discussing a decision favoring the decision-making process.
By the same token, Jeff Bezos introduced the term in one of his annual letters to the investors at Amazon:
Third, use the phrase “disagree and commit.” This phrase will save a lot of time. If you have conviction on a particular direction even though there’s no consensus, it’s helpful to say, “Look, I know we disagree on this but will you gamble with me on it? Disagree and commit?” — Jeff Bezos.
In fact, this principle has become one of the principles of leadership at Amazon:
13. Have backbone, disagree and commit
Leaders are obligated to respectfully challenge decisions when they disagree, even when doing so is uncomfortable or exhausting. Leaders have conviction and are tenacious. They do not compromise for the sake of social cohesion. Once a decision is determined, they commit wholly.
If you want to know more
Here are a few links to articles and books on the topic of ‘Disagree and Commit’ which helped me in the writing of this article:
Hackernews thread in which the use of Disagree & Commit is debated