This week, the New York Times Corner Office column (by Adam Bryant) features an interview with Bob Pittman, CEO of Clear Channel Communications. You may also know Pittman as the person who oversaw the creation and launch of MTV back in the 1980s. In the column, Pittman talks about the value of dissent, a topic about which I have written extensively over the years. Here is what he says:
Often in meetings, I will ask people when we’re discussing an idea, “What did the dissenter say?” The first time you do that, somebody might say, “Well, everybody’s on board.” Then I’ll say, “Well, you guys aren’t listening very well, because there’s always another point of view somewhere and you need to go back and find out what the dissenting point of view is.” I don’t want to hear someone say after we do something, “Oh, we should have done this.” I want us to listen to these dissenters because they may intend to tell you why we can’t do something, but if you listen hard, what they’re really telling you is what you must do to get something done. It gets you out of your framework of the conventions of what you can and can’t do.
I love the question: What did the dissenter say? Often, people come to the leader with a recommendation. They are both the advocates for a particular plan, as well as the primary information gatherers and analysts of the situation. They clearly have strong vested interest. (bias!) Asking about the dissenters insures that you are not simply hearing advocacy. Moreover, it enables the leader to dig into the advocates' decision-making process a bit. Did they reach out to hear opposing opinions at all? Did they consider alternatives? Did they probe and test their assumptions? If they stumble on this question, then you know that their decision-making process has key weaknesses. At this point, as a leader, you can conclude that you are not in a good position to make a tough call. Your team is not providing you with the right information, analysis, and advice.