[August 23, 2014] Significant risks to “modern” senior leaders are not having all the best ideas on the table while making decisions and communicating strategy. This includes having all the relevant information available and the thinking behind the best ideas. Both the information and thinking needed is best achieved through encouraging open debate. Successful organizations, lead by some of the best leaders, have developed a variety of processes to achieve this end.
The makeup of the people who are involved in the debate can be a challenge to the senior leader. Should they all be senior leaders or a mix within the organization? Should they include people most knowledgeable on the subject matter or a mix? When the groups that help provide information and thinking are too narrow, the danger is that group members will try to minimize disharmony and reach consensus without a real look at all viewpoints … groupthink.
“Facts are many, but the truth is one. If you shut your door to all errors, truth will be shut out.” – Rabindranath Tagore1
In many organizations, a system of hierarchical staff groups are formed that push issues up through formalized procedures, culminating in the best ideas and recommendations given to the decision maker. These are often called staff action groups/committees. The problem is that they are notoriously slow and are prone to filter out the more creative ideas that may be relevant.
Senior leaders can encourage open debate by establishing some basic rules. All the groups are lead by a person who is willing to encourage participants to discuss the issues, familiarize them with the issues, remind them of the objectives and goals, and ensure there is some level of consensus. One of the more important rules is to ensure that ideas, especially those out of the ordinary, are not trivialized and that the individual is not bullied. Much of this can be found in the concepts of Chatham House Rules and the military’s After Action Reviews.
The formalized processes are important but the underlying theme is to encourage those with ideas to express their thinking. Problem solving, decision making, and analyses are improved when the psychology of people is used to improve the organization ability to achieve its mission, regardless of the process used.
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