Encouraging Dissent

Companies love a yes man.

I don’t mean a spineless sycophant, though of course some organizations and their leaders like those, too. I just mean that in general, optimism tends to be rewarded. And with good reason! Optimists are the risk-takers, the innovators, the ones that make the world move.

But there’s absolutely a role for informed pessimism in some cases. Sometimes ideas are just bad. The closer you are to something, the harder it can be to see the bad ideas. Unfortunately, that can sometimes mean that the leader of a project or even head of a company can be the person most blind to the realities of a particular project.

Good leaders try to avoid this problem by actively encouraging their teams to give honest feedback, and not to just tell the leader what they want to hear. But even good leaders that do this run into a problem: even if they want honest feedback, people can be afraid to give it for a variety of reasons.

First, no one wants to be unpopular. If everyone is excited about a new initiative, being the one voice saying “I think our budget projections are way too conservative and this is going to cost us 3x as much as we think, thus rending the project a huge loss instead of a modest win” isn’t winning any popularity contests. If the project moves forward anyway and the pessimist was right, he’ll win no extra friends saying “I told you so,” and people might even blame the pessimist, accusing him of anything from not being invested enough to outright sabotage. If the project goes forward anyway and the pessimist was wrong, he’ll lose credibility and social capital. If the project doesn’t move forward due to his opinion, people will never be sure if the project might not have succeeded, and many will think he crushed a good idea. In short, there’s no hero’s path for the pessimist, even if he’s totally correct.

Smart people know that, and often keep their mouths shut even when the leader is insistent that they want honest feedback. If you’re a leader, you don’t want your smart people keeping their mouths shut! So how do you make it safe for them to give you their specialized knowledge without it possibly hurting the social capital they’ve built in their team?

A research psychologist named Gary Klein invented a spectacular technique for overcoming this problem, and if you’re a team, project, or company leader this is something you should definitely have in your toolbox. It’s called the “Pre-Mortem.”

A “post-mortem” is an examination of a dead body to determine the cause of death, and from that the Pre-mortem gets its name; it’s an examination to determine how a project is going to die. It works like this: When a major decision hasn’t yet been made but is near to the deadline for an answer, you get the team together – everyone who has or might have valuable input. You say, “Okay everyone. We’re nearing the time where we have to make a firm call on going ahead with Project X. Let’s assume we say yes, and now it’s one year from today. I want everyone to start with the assumption that Project X was an unmitigated disaster. Went down in flames. In front of you is a piece of paper – write down the history of that disaster. Explain how it all went wrong.”

This solves all of the problems detailed above. First, it makes everyone the voice of opposition instead of a lone pessimist or small group, so no one loses social capital for stating their opinion. Second, because it was specifically requested, the dissent can’t be seen as any level of disloyalty. It gets your smart people talking instead of keeping quiet, and best of all it puts them all in a room together to brainstorm ideas.

The end result: if there are any problems with the upcoming project that anyone can see, you’ll know about them! It doesn’t even have to spell doom for the project; in many cases, catching and talking about these problems early is exactly the thing that saves the project, because they can be corrected for before they’re an issue. And it builds great trust with your team – it’s one thing to say you want honest feedback, but too many people have had leaders that said that with one side of their mouth, and then scolded an employee for disloyalty with the other side.

It’s good to be an optimist. But when it comes time for really big decisions, take a little time to listen to the pessimists, and let them stress-test your ideas. If you surround yourself with smart people but don’t create an environment where they can disagree with you, you’re wasting them.

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