Do Teams Have to Agree On Everything?

One thing that a lot of people don’t realize is that C level teams, or partnerships don’t agree on everything.  There is a misconception that everyone is in lockstep.  Great organizations are not always in lockstep.  It’s actually better to have healthy dissent.  Better decisions are made.

However, I think most people see organizations as top down. One central person sits on a throne and passes off edicts. Everyone under them scurries to make it happen.

Companies do have principles and culture.  There is an unsaid way of doing things.  For example, how you take care of unsatisfied customers can vary from company to company.  Is the staff empowered to make decisions and spend company resources to make a situation right?  Or, do they have to go through a process so a centralized decision can be made?  A big influence on principles and culture is the market the company is targeting.

I have been a part of bad culture.  It’s not fun.  It’s a fight to the death and there are winners and losers.  I have been a part of organizations with a very political culture.  Behind the scenes, people are working against others.  It’s not fun.  I have also been a part of cultures that were great.  They have had dissent and it’s been handled.  Everyone inside still feels like a valued member of the team.

Fred Wilson has talked about his organization at Union Square Ventures.  He calls it “collegial”.  I think this is a nice way of saying that they debate.  The thing is, it’s the culture you create before you have that debate which determines if it’s collegial or not.  If dissent is valued, and people feel safe enough to be transparent with how they are feeling, then you can have collegial debate.  If people don’t feel safe, it’s impossible.

The debate might not be resolved immediately.  There have to be ways to handle that.  Sometimes the issue is small. Sometimes it’s a lot larger.  The small issues can be handled pretty easily-and they need to be handled so that they don’t bleed into larger issues.  Harder ones require emotional intelligence and active participation.

A lot of people say that you must have diversity on a team to have a good culture.  I agree, diversity can be valuable.  But diversity doesn’t necessarily mean gender, sexual orientation or skin color.  It’s diversity of experience and opinion that matter.  It’s important to blend that mix into a culture that can operate and execute.  Do the people on the team compliment each other’s strengths and weaknesses?  If the diversity is too extreme, that makes it tougher.

For example, my partner Kenny thinks about things using a totally different process than I do.  He is an engineer.  He has high capability in skills that I am not strong in. On the flip side, I pick up the slack in things he doesn’t have.  It’s a team effort and we really work hard to verbalize why we are thinking what we are thinking.  There is a lot of checking in and examining what is really going on underneath the surface.

My friend Raman Chadha works on this at his program in Chicago.  I helped him with the initial idea, but he and his team have really made it fly.  Raman’s program is unique and I encourage people to check it out.  Jerry Colonna has done a series of podcasts that touch on these issues.  Next week, Anne Libby will be in from NYC to host some office hours at Nextspace in Chicago to talk about them.  Sign up here.

Dissent the right way can be very very valuable.  It can stop organizations from going down the wrong path.  In the Roman Catholic church, the college of Cardinals designated that one cardinal would be the “devil’s advocate”.  That cardinal would be able to argue with the Pope.  It was a valued position.

Even in small teams, disagreements happen.  I have seen disagreements blow apart small companies.  You must manage them.

I disagree with those that say a business must be a “family”.  Families are different than businesses.  There are similarities, but I think it’s a bad metaphor.  It’s a business.  Businesses execute differently and are there to return value to shareholders by solving problems for customers.  Great families have a thing called unconditional love which is impossible to instill in a business.

The other important thing is what happens when the conflict is resolved.  If you have created a culture in the firm that is supportive, everyone will get behind the decision or strategy that has been made.  But, what if it fails?  That’s where it can get ugly.  If it’s a supportive culture, everyone will examine the process of getting to the decision.  You leave out the “I told you so’s” and personalities.

I have seen strategy fail.  Sometimes, it blows up the company.  Sometimes, it doesn’t but in seed stage companies it certainly hurts.

4 thoughts on “Do Teams Have to Agree On Everything?

  1. .
    One may object to the word “dissent” as being too strong to describe an otherwise healthy discussion methodology or decision making process in any enterprise.

    The smart CEO frames the question and draws out every possibly alternative as to how it might be answered. In some instances, the decision must be chosen from one of what may be a not fully understood set of alternatives — particularly so when constrained by time.

    If there is a fair and open discussion, then there should not be dissent. There may be “wrong” decisions but any CEO is going to make wrong decisions. Nobody is perfect. How the reality of the error is dealt with is important to the dynamic of the group.

    An organization has to have a place where the discussion ends and decisions get made — where the buck stops.


  2. Interesting to consider these thoughts in the context of political parties. What is their purpose, and how do they handle dissent, and failure?

  3. One of the things I appreciate about you, Jeff, is that you and I don’t agree about everything. And, we can still have a conversation, and even work together. I feel like I learn a lot from people who think differently than I do.

    Thanks for hosting/plugging my office hours. I’m excited! (And there’s still one time slot left…here’s a link to your Built post, which didn’t show up above:

    See you next week!

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