“… fear of disagreement with President Biden doomed the decision-making process for the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan,” according to Tevi Troy writing in the Wall Street Journal. That may not be an accurate assessment, but it certainly occurs in executive suites across the business world—and with the same disastrous consequences.
Nobody knows everything about a complex issue, and even people with similar knowledge may have different perspectives about risks and opportunities. The CEO’s broad responsibilities make it difficult to learn all relevant facts about a major decision. That’s why debate about policy and strategy is vital to good decisions-making.
Corporations and even small businesses face the same challenge as presidents, though for different reasons. Presidents are embarrassed and can lose prestige when internal policy debates are made public. Businesses face that problem only occasionally, but CEOs confront a different issue: loyalty. In the typical executive suite, the people discussing policy are also implementing policy.
When a leader has settled on a decision, then staff members must implement that decision to the best of their ability. CEOs naturally question the effort that will be made by executives who disagreed about the decision. But such an attitude on the part of the CEO will, over time, stifle the vigorous debates that should precede major decisions.
Establishing a culture that defines how internal debates take place will make disagreements a source of strength rather than weakness. The leader must define the subject as open to debate. Once the leader’s mind is made up, debate is a waste of time. A good leader will encourage frank discussions at first, but then close debate when a decision has been reached.
Five ground rules for healthy debates have been suggested by Shane Snow: Start with a well-defined objective, everyone works together as a team, disagreements are not personal, focus is on facts, logic and the topic, and everyone is intellectually honest and humble.
A designated devil’s advocate for the unlikely side of a discussion has been used, though Troy (in the article cited above) argues that in the Lyndon Johnson administration, that person became an outcast.
Metrics can help keep discussion healthy. In a typical debate, both sides throw out a variety of facts and statistics. A better approach is to agree well in advance what metrics are most important. In ongoing discussions about the economy, I have argued for a consistent dashboard of statistics most important to a company. Otherwise, executives will cherry pick the numbers that support their side, and staff members will serve up to the CEO figures that support the boss’s preexisting opinion.
Staff members who will not be implementing the decision have more freedom to express themselves. A couple of promising mid-level executives could rotate into a staff position for a year or two, during which time they develop arguments on either side of major corporate decisions.
Although the CEO will set the tone, which determines how much the company benefits from honest discussions of strategic alternatives, executives below the CEO must consider their personal strategies. One common approach is to guess the boss’s position and to support it. That may well succeed, but isn’t helpful to the organization. An alternative is to be a helpful debater before decisions, then a vigorous implementer after decisions.
On a sailboat race down the California coast, the skipper argued with his most senior crew member about whether to raise the spinnaker. The debate became heated. The skipper made the call to hoist the spinnaker, and then the argumentative crew member took responsibility for adjusting the sail. He focused intently on this difficult task, doing an excellent job. He demonstrated his loyalty to the team by implementing superbly a decision he had opposed. That approach is more beneficial to the CEO than the sycophant’s, though not everyone appreciates it.
The final task for the CEO is to elevate to senior positions people who will use strategy debates to help the company make better decisions. The irritating gadfly doesn’t much help, but neither does the obsequious suck-up. Plenty of CEOs will pay lip service to open discussions, but the real test is whether they are willing to hire and promote people who engage in serious debate.
Good open discussions can prevent disasters such as the U.S. withdrawal in Afghanistan. Even if U.S. withdrawal was the right decision, poor execution has led to disastrous consequences.