Life / Can Do

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Productive Disagreements: Revisted

with 3 comments

In a recent article I discussed the value of a good argument that received an interesting response from another blogger who writes the excellent management blog, Manage Better Now. Here’s what that person wrote:

The best ideas that I have ever seen implemented were born out of conflict. Be polite and professional, but a passionate heated discussion gets the blood flowing and stimulates new ideas. I welcome conflict, but you have to make sure everyone leaves the meeting as friends (or at least as close to it as they were before the meeting).

I have to admit when I wrote the article it was intended to be somewhat of a lighthearted piece – a quick read intended to provide new insights. However, the comment above made me think and inspired me to add more to the topic.

The statement about making sure “everyone leaves the meeting as friends” is an important point that should have been part of the post. At the time I wrote the article, I felt that the value of maintaining mutual respect was implied, but upon reading it again I can see how it could appear to promote conflict for conflict’s sake, which is not what I intended. Conflict that does not produce value for one or both parties is just sadism.

An argument does not always involve direct conflict at least not in a personal sense. The word “argument” has a number of different connotations. I fear that most people normally associate the word with the ranting produced by dysfunctional relationships.

As a person who has worked for years as a software developer, I have many fond memories of arguments that produced great results. Some I “won” and some I “lost”, but in both scenarios, to the benefit of our clients.

An unproductive argument can occur when a participant is not given the opportunity to state their case. People with strong personalities have a unconscious tendency to overlook those who are more reserved and less outspoken. They may feel that if a person had something important to add, they would speak up load and clear. That would be a valid point, but there should be consideration toward encouraging others to share their ideas.

I had a boss, let’s call him Frank, who yelled at me during a meeting after what must have been my 5th attempt to jump into the conversation. “Tim! If you have something to say, speak up! Don’t wait for permission because you ain’t gonna get it.”

Years later, Frank and I were in another meeting where he was arguing against rewriting a piece of software that I believed was at the end of its life cycle. I had to make my arguments against his line of reasoning. He was saying the development costs would be too high and I argued that maintenance costs over time were much higher. I stood my ground and even had to talk over him to present the facts. In the end, I had the math to back me up so I won the argument.

After the meeting, I was having mixed emotions about standing up to a person who was my mentor for so many years. As I was sitting in my cubicle mulling this over, Frank came up to me and patted me on the back. He was proud of what I did.

A corporate environment is not, in and of itself, a cold, heartless place. It is the people in the organization that can make it cold. We must remember that a corporation is an intangible concept that requires people to make it tangible. When those who lead an organization, lead from a sense of purpose, with dignity and respect for others, they create an environment that builds employees who create value for the love of creating value.  I was not fearful of arguing with a person who had authority over me because I was arguing for the benefit of our company and our clients and not for my own selfish reasons. In the group that I work with, the person with the best ideas implicitly has the authority to promote those ideas, even if they conflict with others higher up in the organization.

This blows the minds of new recruits. They come in expecting the same old command and control mentality they’ve witnessed at other companies (or even in other departments within our company). But when they see themselves being asked for their opinions, and experience their ideas being taken seriously, it can be a little daunting. When you are person working in the trenches, you are not accustomed to being held accountable for your ideas or decisions. They may be thinking about what might happen if their idea fails or if they are called on to take on a bigger role than they were ready for. They should consider the consequences of their ideas because that is what leaders must do, but a leader must also have the courage to take risks for something they believe in. You build leadership skills by leading when you are not ready for the responsibility.

When an employee’s idea doesn’t pan out, the consequences are usually minor and mostly self inflicted. At most, they may need to face questions about why they didn’t consider all the possibilities before spending resources on something that wasn’t feasible. In general, most good companies will reward failure especially when it was an attempt to be innovative with a reasonable level of risk.

I have a motto that I’m sure I borrowed somewhere : “Fail early and fail often”. For every 5 great ideas, only 1 will live up to its potential, but that 1 great idea that does succeed, will more than compensate for the other 4. For this to be true, the person or team has to know when to call it quits on something that isn’t working. Even those that fail to pan out, may eventually turn into something if given time on the back-burner. But don’t waste effort on a lost cause hoping for that spark of insight sheds new light; it will only come when you have put the idea aside.

Some of my proudest moments are when I convinced management to cancel a project early on, before costs got to high to quit. Trust me when I say that arguing against your own idea, is one of the hardest arguments to win.

Written by Tim ThinkAuthor

January 5, 2012 at 11:05 pm

3 Responses

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  1. Tim, you touch on another great point. It is difficult to admit you are wrong on a project that you have fought for, but people will truly respect you a whole lot more if you are able to do it. I trust the wisdom of people that can recognize when they are wrong, because if you can then you are likely pretty good at determining when you are right as well. If you know the difference between the two, then I will always welcome your opinion.

    Manage Better Now

    January 6, 2012 at 1:07 pm

  2. Great points. It is unfortunate that “argument” and “disagreement” have become “bad words.” I love the belief in failing early, and often, a motto of many great people, and companies.


    January 23, 2012 at 7:27 pm

    • I try to avoid the work “argument” or “disagreement” due to the negative feelings associated with them. I find it better to ask questions and let the other person come to their own conclusions.

      “You are suggesting X, but how does that compare with Y?”

      I’ll also try saying something like “I considered that as well but then I realized ….”.

      Still, when someone isn’t even considering an alternative way of looking at something I will sometimes blatantly say, “I disagree.”. That catches them off guard and puts their line of reasoning into doubt which makes them rethink their conclusions. It isn’t very tactful but may be necessary when stakes are high.

      Tim Thinkauthor

      January 24, 2012 at 11:04 pm

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