Turn Disagreements into Competitive Advantage

Turn Disagreements into Competitive Advantage
19/09/2016 Brian Petersen

Turning Disagreements into Competitive Advantage

Have you ever wondered why such smart and experienced people as your colleagues can sometimes fail so miserably? I have.  And I have been part of these brilliant teams, who launched products or developed campaigns which, in hindsight, were bound to fail.

Most global companies have very intelligent managers, with decades of relevant experience. They usually work long hours, applying everything they have to offer to the projects that are crucial to the company’s success. They set strategies, map out action plans, drive execution and measure results. Yet there is usually a feeling that they could have done much more. They could have done it faster, better and cheaper. They could have beaten competition by a bigger margin and they could have grown top and bottom line significantly more.

They are not wrong!

There is a bottle-neck in all companies which prevents the company from using 100% of the intelligence, expertise and energy that its employees have.  In some companies, the bottle-neck is narrow, in others it is wide.  But it is always there.  The bottle-neck is disagreements.

If you look at case studies where companies failed drastically, there were always employees who saw it coming, long before it happened. And while there was still time to change direction.  In a less dramatic, but not less important, way, this happens every day in all companies.  There are people who know how to make good projects better.  There are people who identify stumbling blocks that will derail key initiatives.  And they know how to remove them in time.  But in most projects, not all of this expertise is included, and the project with decent, but not great, results.   Certainly not with results which match the quality of the people working at the company.

Imagine a company where disagreements are seen as a competitive advantage. Where disagreements are not just welcome. Where its managers actually seek out disagreements actively.  How would this company be different? First of all, all work would be based on informed decisions.   All the employees’ best thinking would be applied in the daily work.  Data and interpretations would be accessible to all, even when they are conflicting.  With this level of transparency, it is inevitable that the decisions will be of higher quality.  And they will be long-lasting decisions, why time is not wasted every few months challenging the decisions previously made.

This company would also see a significant improvement in accountability. This is described in my blog “Want Results? Fix Accountability!”.  Real accountability is a personal decision to take ownership and responsibility for a result.  It can only happen if the manager feels that he has had a chance to review the plan and input on it.  If he feels heard, he will take on accountability.  Over time, this will change the culture of the company. Employee engagement will go up, retention will go down and managers will pour their energy into building the business instead of complaining about not being heard.

Perhaps the most surprising effect is that this will improve the company’s technical expertise and skills.  Deficiencies in expertise in technical areas from Finance and Production to R&D and Marketing will become obvious.  Lack of necessary systems will be clear.  As a logical outcome of the daily work with transparent disagreements, the teams will recommend to fix these outages through recruiting, training or investments in IT or other systems.

So how do we get there?  We first need to understand why we are not already there.  In a non-scientific survey of 35 HR managers, I found an overwhelming agreement on the answer.  It is too personal and awkward.  A constructive discussion around disagreement requires a level of trust, vulnerability and openness.  The managers who hold back disagreement due to peer pressure or pressure from above need to feel safe enough to speak up.  The managers who always complain and disagree need to be open enough to admit when they are wrong.  The manager who gets alignment by bullying or mandating needs to be vulnerable enough to allow for there to be a better plan than his.

All of this goes against a general western trend towards political correctness and popularity. Controversy and conflicts are avoided because they could offend someone.  And the result is ambiguity.  Some disagreements are not voiced.  Others are voiced but not heard. Some disagreements are wrong, but this never becomes clear since they are not discussed.  Meetings become long and boring. Motivation goes down – and the project work suffers.

The company which learns to use disagreement constructively will have a competitive edge over the rest.  In my blog “This is Why your Company is not Winning”, I refer to a McKinsey study which concludes that 50% of a company’s financial success comes from Organisational Health, which is a synonym for learning to use disagreements.  Other studies suggest that most companies organisational health is less than 20% of what it could be.  It means that even a small improvement, e.g. from 20% to 30%, will make an enormous difference vs competition.  A company that uses 30% of its intellectual capabilities actually uses 50% more than a company which uses 20%.  And given the trend towards political correctness, competition is unlikely to catch up with you fast.

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