Listen to the dissenters
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Listen to the dissenters

Time to think REALLY different, and why dissenters are your most valuable assets… if you can stand to hear what they have to say, that is.

Limits are not final, limits are not set in stone, and limits for today are certainly not rules to be adhered to for ever. Limits are merely the extent of what your imagination considers possible right now. If your business is centered on providing products and services that can be in any way replicated, assume that someone is already looking at ways to do so, except your competition will likely not replace the product itself with a competing product, but provide an entirely new solution that does the job faster, or more reliably. Certainly cheaper. Their costs may well be not 10% lower than yours but likely 10x lower, with little of what you see as standard overhead. And they will not move at 110% of your speed to market but 10x your speed, because their internal communication moves like greased lightning and their entire organisation is aligned towards that overly ambitious goal, way over the horizon line. Considering limits as somehow preordained and needing to be adhered to, is terminal. 

Culture in any organisation is subject to the same forces of compliance and dissent as any social group. “Culture determines and limits strategy,” said MIT psychology professor Edgar Schein in his Organizational Culture and Leadership. He was talking specifically about the need to match organisational cultures in a merger situation, but the larger point remains – culture is an organisation’s spinal cord, its oral history, its mythology, the way and the why its people do things without giving it a second thought. Can a small group of dissenters bring about positive cultural change, leading to sustainable innovation thinking? There is no considering of innovation as separate from culture because not integrating the two will always mean that a culture hostile to innovation will first immobilise then marginalise it. The right culture on the other hand will be conducive to innovation thinking occurring naturally in your ranks. There is also no innovation without communication: imagine an organisation successfully implementing something as complex and all-embracing as a real, down to the marrow programme designed to get its people to think differently. Now think about the chances of success for such a programme without a correspondingly sophisticated communication programme. Any change manager will raise her eyebrows at the suggestion. 

Dissent may seem like the thing to weed out from the ranks. Instead, it ought to be seen as an asset. Consider this: where do you get your thoughts from? This is not quite as ridiculous a question as it seems. If the main source of your thoughts are your other, existing thoughts, you are reducing all of them in their own sauce – to use a cooking metaphor. This means that any cognitive biases such as self-referential confirmation bias which you may have (and we all do) will be reinforced, and your field of vision narrowed. We are stuck in perceiving reality through the same glasses we have always worn. Decisions compounding on decisions from the past, paths walked down in the same direction, in the same order as always. One of the most important reasons to treat diversity as a tactical advantage is to allow multiple perspectives to ameliorate our biases – perspectives from a variety of different people. 

It is an entirely normal human trait to try to make the unfamiliar fit into a familiar context, and excluding any parts that do not fit. We do it without so much as a thought, and then group biases slide in and reinforce group decisions as “the right thing.” To get along with others in the group, we agree to agree, silencing any objection from our independent thinking faculties. Extensive research into group behaviour, by Irving Jarvis who coined the term “groupthink”, and many others, demonstrates that we often adjust what we believe according to the agreed position of the group, quite regardless of what the facts may be – conforming to majority opinion, even when the majority is wrong. It sounds implausible, but that is precisely what happens. Rupert Brown, commented on the famous conformity experiments conducted by the Polish American psychologist Solomon Asch in the 1950s where many people were willing to ignore reality so as to fit in. Some people who went along with “the majority”, Brown concluded, “lacked confidence in their own judgement, assuming that others in the experiment were privy to some additional information that was guiding their responses” while others “were not actually doubting what they saw, simply conformed so as not to be different.” Brown added “Exact replication and various modifications of Asch’s experiment have been conducted in a large number of different countries and the basic conformity phenomena which he discovered seem to be remarkably persistent.” 

This of course means, conformity fuels itself – as more people agree, more are likely to also agree. Conformity becomes more prevalent as the homogeneity of the group increases. With this in mind, consider for a moment the fact that top management is usually the least diverse group of people in the company, composed almost entirely of experts in the field, for whom decades of experience have honed their professional faculties to a fine edge. They are safe in their knowledge of the business, and possess high-grade skills which allow them to extract value from what they know best. That is also, unfortunately, precisely the right mix of mindset and focus to keep them oblivious to impending disruption, and the opposite of what is required to seed and grow innovation thinking. To help initiate the shift to accommodate these processes, the top brass need to signal that by welcoming dissenting voices they intend for the company to be at the vanguard of innovation thinking. Dissent, by a diverse group of individuals with varying outlooks, backgrounds and perspectives is a key asset, to be encouraged and nurtured, not thwarted. Naturally, for this to work, dissent needs to be seen as a force aimed at improving the company’s chances of success. Unfortunately, most companies do not see it that way and, instead, continue to insist that the best way may be, for example, to compete on price in a crowded market and spend more money on advertising because that is what has worked in the past, even if the indications are that it does not any more. Such companies are not long for this world, especially if they have in place restrictive systems which limit people’s ability to think freely.

The nature of innovation thinking lies in opening the door to a new way of perceiving reality, not in using exciting buzzwords, even if each time we use a sexy buzzword it gives us a little shot of dopamine. (I wonder sometimes where the word buzzword has actually come from. I would bet that it has something to do with that “feel good buzz” that comes from using it, in an excited state, with a group of people who are just as excited.) We need a new set of glasses, different from those we have always worn. With the new glasses on, we will be in the right mindset to see patterns, relationships and possibilities that have eluded us before. In a world of constant and accelerating change, we will be able to tune into those changes rather than remaining convinced, for yet another day, that we have arrived at the point of stasis, from which we can calmly and orderly build a strategy for the future. The glasses of innovation thinking allow the wearer to perceive time at the pace at which it actually moves, rather than some slower version of it. 

Yet, innovation thinking, and cultures of creativity are not commonplace in companies. Barry Staw, the social psychologist, laid down some guidelines as to why creativity has trouble taking root and what to do to overcome the problem, in his essay “Why Organizations Reject Innovation.” Diversity is front and centre of his argument: “Instead of the normal recruitment process in which people are brought in who have the skills needed by the firm and the values it admires, innovative companies must let down their barriers. They must accommodate those whose skills are more peripheral and whose goals are suspect.” Staw goes on to list more directions for companies which wish to up their level of innovation. To begin with, new recruits must be encouraged to have their own opinion. “There is nothing that kills innovation like everyone speaking in the same voice, even if it is a well-trained voice.” I would turn that into “especially if it is a well-trained voice” since high-grade professional experience is its own kind of a box that is hard to climb out of.

Yes, it takes longer for a diverse group to coalesce into a team, which is why management orthodoxy has usually seen diversified teams as costing more in terms of time and money. It has been amply demonstrated, however, that diverse teams pretty much uniformly produce better results, even if they take longer to get there. “Encourage creative disruption,” said Oren Harari in his biography of Colin Powell. “Random hostilities are not what the organization needs, but if nobody’s pissed off, maybe you’re not pushing hard enough. Being responsible sometimes means pissing people off.”

According to Staw, “innovative firms must encourage disobedience.” Top management ought to “encourage active opposition” because only from a multitude of views can we draw sufficient understanding of a complex problem, so as to come up with a good enough product or service which is a solution for that problem. What Staw calls adaptiveness should beat a desire for efficiency. People need to be given freedom to pursue “seemingly meaningless ventures” and leaders have to be prepared to invest resources in projects which may fail. Staw was writing this in the mid-90s. Google’s famous “20% time” had not been thought of since Google itself did not exist, although 3M had been applying its “15% time” – same idea – for a good long while, and many of its flagship products had come about as a result of its scientists and engineers taking that time to ask that magical question: let me see what happens if…? Today this trend is slowly taking off, though it is largely limited to companies which rely on science and technology to feed their product pipelines. Atlassian, a successful Australian software company with global operations, allows employees to take paid days off, to work on projects. These are called FedEx Days: whatever it is, needs to be delivered in 24 hours.

Finally, Staw wrote, in order to be innovative companies needed to strive to be industry leaders, willing to “stick their necks out on untried products and technology, not knowing if they will be successes or failures.” So hire nonconformists, invite heated discussion, be first to test unknown waters. This is a recipe for disaster for most managers, right? It is certainly seen as such, which is why companies don’t do it as a rule. As a result, they fail to innovate, and then just fail.