Friday, June 14, 2013

Taking a Decision When Your Team Disagrees

Last week on 4 June I wrote a blog on the "illusion of consensus" and what leaders can do to insure diverse views get surfaced.  There is another circumstance where there may be genuine consensus among the leadership team and the leader disagrees. With apologies to my global readers, I'll use a US historical example.

In his book, Undaunted Courage which describes the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1803-1806, Stephen Ambrose describes just such a situation. In the very early days in the history of the United States, the US government purchased the Louisiana Territory from France.  Although the British and the Spanish governments also claimed parts of this territory, the lands purchased comprised roughly the western most 80% of what is now the United States and were inhabited by scattered bands of native people. Thomas Jefferson, the US President at the time, chartered an expedition led by his personal secretary Meriwether Lewis and Captain William Clark.  Jefferson provided detailed instructions to the expedition leaders .  He identified the core mission was to "the most direct & practicable water communication across this continent, for the purposes of commerce." They were instructed to explore the Missouri River and  any connecting river to the Pacific Ocean.  There is a good summary of the expedition at this Wikipedia link.

The expedition used flat bottomed pirogues as transportation for themselves and supplies.  They used long poles and paddles to propel themselves upstream.  They spent their first winter with the friendly Mandan native people in what is now North Dakota.  The Mandan, who roamed far to the West for hunting  were able to describe to the expedition what lay ahead and key landmarks along the way.  One key landmark was the "Great Falls" of the Missouri River.

The following Spring the expedition resumed their exploration armed with key information about these important landmarks.  The Missouri River in the Spring is extremely muddy as the snow and ice of winter melt.  Not only is it muddy, it is full of the detritus a river gathers.... tree branches, logs, large chunks of earth. It had to be incredibly difficult to both maneuver and propel the 55 ft long pirogues, loaded with supplies, against the river current filled with debris.

In spite of the difficulty, Lewis and Clark were gratified that the landmarks were as had been described to them by the Mandans.  After two months of this difficult journey, in June of 1805 the expedition came to a fork in the river. They still had not come to the Great Falls.  They were astonished that this fork, an important landmark, wasn't included in the descriptions they'd been given.  One branch went to the northwest, the other to the southwest.  Each branch was approximately the same width.  The branch to the north was of the exact character of the river they had experienced so far, equally muddy, and filled with sediment and debris.  The branch to the south was clearer, flowed a little more swiftly and filled with smooth rocks.  The members of the expedition, excepting Lewis and Clark, agreed the north branch was the Missouri River because it looked exactly as the Missouri they had experienced for over a year.  They believed the south branch was a tributary.  Lewis and Clark weren't sure.  They sent scouts up each fork with no conclusive outcome.  They then split the party in half and each party rode a day and a half up each branch and returned.  Again, these explorations did not yield any more clues about the correct way forward.  A decision had to be taken.

Lewis and Clark consulted with their team.  The forty men of the party unanimously reaffirmed their previous opinion that the north fork, which was exactly like the river they had so painfully navigated for over a year, was the Missouri.  Lewis and Clark disagreed.  From their study of early maps they reasoned they were close to the source of the river and when they approached the source the water would run more swiftly and the south fork.  They also reasoned the the north fork would have to be quite long in order to accumulate so much debris and they believed they were too close to the source for the correct river to accumulate all that debris..  In a remarkable tribute to their leadership the members of the team "said very cheerfully that they were ready to follow us anywhere we thought proper to direct but that they still thought that the other was the river."  They took the south fork and three days later, 13 June 1805....208 years ago yesterday...they arrived at the Great Falls of the Missouri.  Lewis and Clark were correct.

So what are the leadership lessons in this story?  One is the leader has to have an idea of what lies ahead....not only key landmarks but a recognition there will be critical uncertainties.  When faced with one of these critical decision points, it's good to explore options and gather data to try to make a more informed decision.  There are times however, when gathering additional data doesn't help...there is still considerable uncertainty and a decision has to be made.  It's also a good practice to consult with the team on these type matter the decision they are more likely to follow if team members believe their point of view has been considered.  Consultation with the team doesn't mean that good leaders "take a vote and go with the majority" or in this case, with the consensus point of view.  Sometimes leaders have to take decisions in spite of disagreement.  It's uncomfortable for any leader when faced with this situation, but great leaders know the correct way forward doesn't always look like the successful ways of the past.

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