In the most recent American midterm election, voters delivered a split Congress, an outcome usually understood to slow legislative progress to a near halt. When neither party is able to drive their agenda through Congress, pundits and voters alike bemoan the inefficiency of a gridlocked institution.
But America’s founders intentionally developed this system to give a voice to the minority. Without the space for debate and discord, the country could easily revert to the authoritarian system it disavowed so completely.
Likewise, dissent can add value to organizations. The challenge, however, is to productively channel tension. While gridlock and unproductive division may be bad for government and business alike, healthy tension and diversity of perspective is not.
We counsel our corporate clients to embrace tension in four ways:
1. Allow for dissent in the forums where power matters
Many organizations try to hide division or pretend it doesn’t exist, falsely interpreting a lack of dissent as agreement (Shahinpoor and Matt, 2007). Or, if dissent is tolerated, it does not reach top leadership. In these cultures, alignment and good news are the norms. However, dissent that doesn’t reach the forums where power is exercised, and decisions made, is just grumbling. Incorporating the voice of the customer and the employee into top management meetings builds organizational transparency and holds top leaders accountable.
2. Understand that productive tension requires multiple points of view
Though tension may not be comfortable, it improves organizational outcomes. The reason we design organizations into different function, product, or market groups is to bring different perspectives and objectives into decision-making. But though natural and should be expected, tension is not resolved without intentional and collaborative leadership. The idea of “a team of rivals” refers to U.S. Presidents who have filled positions on their cabinet with members from the opposite political party. Doing so is not just good politics, but also a chance to bring fresh ideas to the table and keep the group averse to overly insular thinking (Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, Goodwin). Contrary voices are just as important on the executive team.
3. Don’t equate good decision making with consensus
Valuing dissent does not mean that decision-making needs to be slow or result in consensus. We have found that organizations that define clear principles for decision making, practice critical conversations around high-value and high-risk topics, and identify the “informed captain” to make the final call, can achieve both good and fast decision-making. Time spent in the debate with clear mechanisms to reach outcomes speeds adoption and activation.
4. Fewer, bigger decisions at the senior level sets the frame for better decisions at the operating layer.
Organizational agility is an important capability in today’s fast-paced business environment. But contrary to what many preach, faster is not always better. For many of our clients we find that senior leaders often need to slow down and make fewer, bigger decisions. The top team benefits from spending more time listening to external and internal data and then debating scenarios and finding meaning in the diversity of perspectives. When the top team slows down, the operators are empowered by clear direction and boundaries to move fast.
The Bottom Line
America’s founders were quite purposeful in the checks and balances they instilled in the government’s three interconnected branches. The institutions they created serve as a check against unilateral decision making of monarchies, sometimes at the expense of speed. In business, good, fast decision-making is a competitive advantage. Government gridlock is not the standard! But the underlying concept is the same – when robust debate based on the different perspectives of stakeholders is harnessed, we can make better decisions together.
Jacob Spangler, Senior Manager, Accenture Operating Model & Organization Design