Friday, November 16, 2012

"The truth springs from arguments amongst friends"

The truth springs from arguments amongst friends-David Hume

Sometimes I think there is a mistaken belief that collaboration is all positive energy....visions of people enthusiastically building off each other's contribution to achieve some breakthrough solution.
More often, breakthrough solutions are the result of the creative tension that comes from disagreement.

Tom Crouch's biography of  Wilbur and Orville Wright, The Bishop's Boys iillustrates this point vividly.  He describes their journey to master manned flight in great detail.  His description of their search for a solution to propeller design is illuminating.  He quotes from an article they later published:

"With the machine moving forward, the air flying backward, the propellers turning sidewise, and nothing standing still, it seemed impossible to find a starting point from which to trace the various simultaneous reactions.  Contemplation of it was confusing.  After long arguments we often found ourselves in the ludicrous position of each having been converted to the other's side, with no more agreement than when the discussion started"

A witness to the discussions described them.  Crouch quotes Charlie Taylor "Both boys had tempers.  They would shout at one another something terrible.  I don't think they really got mad, but they sure got awfully hot."  

Crouch summarizes:  "The arguments that shocked Charlie in fact allowed them to explore every facet of a problem.  Their ability to defend a point of view with real passion, while at the same time listening to the other fellow's opinion, was an essential part of the process."

What does this story mean to a leader?  I think there are a couple of lessons.  One is disagreement among a team on complex issues is a good thing.  In fact, on a well constructed diverse team it should be expected.  When I was leading teams, if we closed down too quickly in agreement on a complex issue I intentionally kept it open.  Closing down too quickly is a warning sign you may have not fully explored every facet of a problem.  My blog of 15 October highlights the use of Devil's Advocates in this role.  Another lesson is that showing emotion and passion on an issue isn't to be's to be expected.    My last point, is the importance of the ability to respect the other person and listen, even when emotions are running high.

It's the leader's role to orchestrate the balance between agreement and disagreement, to tolerate the tension that emerges from passionate disagreement, and to ensure all points of view are aired respectfully.  Great teams are not characterized by a lack of conflict.

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