The Digital Leader Newsletter — Strategies and Techniques for Change Agents, Strategists, and Innovators
Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence — John Adams
How do most large companies operate when it comes to having hard conversations on a problem or issue? Bureaucracy and office politics tend to rule the day. Discussions are often not forthright. People smile and nod their heads “yes” — even when they disagree. In these types of work environments, civility and “getting along” are more important than being right or getting to clarity.
What we need is communication, discussions, and teamwork leading to non-obvious insights. We need to get to the truth.
Consensus poses dangers for businesses, especially those trying to be innovative and needing to solve real problems. If people aren’t having honest and forthright conversations then it’s unlikely that they’re bringing forth truly innovative ideas or that good decisions are being made about these ideas. It’s unlikely they will truly solve a hard problem in a meaningful or holistic manner. Many of the best ideas are counter-intuitive, and may initially seem stupid, impossible, or counterproductive and in a workplace that prizes agreement and civility, they will get voted down.
Amazon works to avoid this culture, specifically with the leadership principle “Have Backbone; Disagree and Commit.” The leadership principle’s description includes “They do not compromise for the sake of social cohesion.”1 Changing the status quo and innovating on a systematic basis is not easy, is not intuitive, and demands excellence in many ways. “Getting along” needs to take a back seat. To counter social cohesion, Amazon encourages the management perspective that harmony is often overvalued in the workplace. Harmony, in fact, can stifle honest critique and encourage polite praise for flawed ideas and execution.
Inside Amazon, I have heard the technique of getting to “disagree and commit” is referred to as “truth-seeking.” Instead of “getting along,” getting to the right answer or insight is the top priority. Bezos believes this is a competitive advantage. Truth-seeking companies will win against companies where people compromise for the sake of civility.
This doesn’t mean that being respectful is not important. Being polite, and being respectful are necessary and valued; after all, you can’t achieve the right results if you leave nothing but burned bridges behind you. Listening is a critical part of getting to hidden truths. It’s just that being polite is not enough, and it shouldn’t be the top priority.
If you work in an organization that currently overvalues consensus, how do you become a more truth-seeking organization?
Do your team and business a favor — have them subscribe to the Digital Leader Newsletter.
Leaders need to set the tone from the top, essentially demonstrating and giving permission for others to replicate what they see at most senior levels of the organization.
This 2017 interview with Andy Jassy captures the spirit and the benefit of truth-seeking as an organizational discipline:
We have an unusually truth-seeking culture at Amazon. We have a leadership principle that says “Have backbone; disagree and commit” and what it means is that we really expect people to speak up if they believe we are headed down a path that is wrong for customers no matter who is advancing it regardless of what level in the company, everybody is empowered and expected to speak up, and then once we have the debate then we all have to pull and work the same way, even if it is different than the way you were advocating. You hear the old adage of two people looking at a ceiling and one person says it’s 14 feet and the other person says it 10 feet and so they say “let’s compromise, it’s twelve feet”. But of course, it’s not twelve feet. There is an answer. Not all the things we consider have that black and white answer, but most things have an answer that really is more right if you actually assess and debate it. We have an environment that empowers people to challenge one another and that’s part of why we end up getting better answers because we have that level of openness and rigor.2
Practice deliberate and honest conversations with your team and catch moments when honest conversations are not taking place or where you are accepting the easy answer instead of the real truth. Be purposeful in communicating that all parties demand rigorous thought and execution. And while everyone must be respectful of others, the business also needs demanding conversations. Honest conversations first look most critically at your area of responsibility. At Amazon, we called this being “vocally self-critical” where you first looked at how your process, your systems, and your teams played a role.
Slow down some of your conversations and meetings. Don’t rush through decisions, which can often encourage people to agree rather than debate. Instead, make clear the type of conversation you are having and the principles or approach you’ll use to make a decision. Are we having a design meeting; are we doing a “correction of error” discussion; are we making a decision about how to structure the organization? Setting this upfront helps the team get better at understanding why we are making a decision in a certain manner. Use judgment on which conversations to slow down. Decisions that are high stakes and may establish a precedent or impact other decisions typically need a slower process. But look for seemingly straightforward conversations that may have broader implications. For example, if you’re discussing “How did this error exist for the past two weeks without us knowing?” then the priority is fixing the error. But you may need to slow down to discuss how you put monitoring and controls in place for the future. This takes a leader to step up in the meeting, challenge the conversation to dig deeper, and get to the essential truth and insight. It might sound something like …
“Wait, we can’t rush through this. Even though that situation happened, that does not explain why our system did not deal with this situation correctly. We have to create more durable and resilient capabilities. So how do we create a capability that reacts appropriately when the environment is failing?”
Hold the other product, service, or business leaders accountable with metrics, service-level agreements (SLAs), and deep root-cause conversations. Root-cause conversations often take considerable effort and time but understanding where an issue started is often the only way to avoid it in the future or to improve your processes. Try using an approach where you ask a question like “Why did this happen?” or “Why did I allow this to affect my business?” five times to get past superficial answers and get to the real root cause.
These types of conversations feature data, facts, an orientation to critical thinking, and being self-critical. Always trying to tie back to the customer and why the topic matters to the customer is present whenever appropriate. Guess what matters much less? What isn’t featured in these conversations? Titles – titles don’t matter when we are seeking root cause and insights. Seniority – seniority doesn’t matter unless it brings along wisdom and insights (these do matter!).
When this type of analysis is done with cross-functional teams it creates an atmosphere where people feel comfortable being honest about where mistakes were made. Metrics, monitoring, and instrumentation of all key capabilities, at a detailed level, provide the critical insights to enable root-cause analysis. When issues do arise, not only are the data and tools in place, but the team will already have a habit of introspection and being vocally self-critical.
Companies I work with, my clients, are looking to challenge the status quo and become more agile in the face of competition. To succeed, leaders need to create the habit of truth-seeking and setting the tone at the top that the company will win by doing the right thing, having honest conversations, leading with customer obsession and data, seeking improvement through data, and ignoring job titles, while still treating each other with respect.
Changing the world is a really hard thing to do. Truth-seeking is required.
About The Digital Leader Newsletter
This is a newsletter for change agents, strategists, and innovators. The Digital Leader Newsletter is a weekly coaching session with a focus on customer-centricity, innovation, and strategy. We deliver practical theory, examples, tools, and techniques to help you build better strategies, better plans, and better solutions — but most of all to think and communicate better. You’ll be able to follow up with questions and advice.
Do your team and business a favor — subscribe to The Digital Leader Newsletter
n Francisco, April 2017“; ~minute 52:30