Disagree and Commit And Prove Yourself Wrong

One management principle I’ve found really powerful is “disagree and commit”, but I’ve often found that it can be easily misapplied.

Let’s first define what the disagree and commit principle is. Here’s Jeff Bezos in Amazon’s 2016 Letter to Shareholders describing the idea:

Use the phrase “disagree and commit.” This phrase will save a lot of time. If you have conviction on a particular direction even though there’s no consensus, it’s helpful to say, “Look, I know we disagree on this but will you gamble with me on it? Disagree and commit?” By the time you’re at this point, no one can know the answer for sure, and you’ll probably get a quick yes. This isn’t one way. If you’re the boss, you should do this too. I disagree and commit all the time.

In short, if you work with passionate, intelligent people, you will be bound to disagree. Hopefully, you and your team are aligned on high-level things like strategy, values and vision, and so the disagreements are more on the tactical side.

In any case, the principle has a few benefits:

  • It surfaces disagreements explicitly, and surfaces them early. This helps your team be more thoughtful about decision-making.
  • It increases the speed of decision-making, because you have a mechanism to move forward without having to get to full consensus.
  • It avoids the type of “design by committee/consensus” traps that often result in low risk-taking.
  • It results in better execution. Once a decision is made, everyone is committed. At least, in theory.

In reality, I’ve that last point (the “commit” piece) difficult for teams. When teams try to simply sprinkle a little “disagree and commit” dust on their existing culture, they often find that it backfires. I call this “naive disagree and commit”.

The problem stems from the obvious fact that most people don’t like being wrong. Of course, the degree of “don’t like being wrong” varies from person to person and situation to situation. But from a social psychology perspective, that characteristic is biologically ingrained in each of us, and it’s called self-justification. When we’re confronted by evidence that we are wrong, our natural reaction isn’t to admit we’re wrong. It’s to double-down and engage in whatever mental gymnastics are necessary to avoid admitting we are wrong to ourselves and others.

It turns out that certain things can kick self-justification into overdrive. For instance, the more publicly and explicitly you hold an opinion, the more likely you are to cling to it. And this is where naive disagree and commit can cause problems.

Let’s say you and your team are debating a potential decision. “I don’t think we should denormalize this data model,” you say, “it might cause consistency issues in the future”. Your team-mates disagree, they think denormalizing will have huge performance improvements and consistency won’t be a big problem. “OK,” you say, “I disagree, but I’m happy to disagree and commit. Let’s denormalize.”

And now, because you’ve made your opinion public and explicit, you’ve just given birth to a tiny little self-justification demon, and that demon is burrowed into your brain—the part of your brain that likes to think you are a smart person who is generally right about things. He’s just sitting there, waiting for opportunities to say, “see, we were right all along”. Depending on how self-aware you are, you may or may not be aware of his existence at all.

People who have generally been successful and right start to ingrain that “being right” into their core identity. The very possibility of being wrong is a self-existential threat. This gets even worse on high-performing teams. For instance, another of Amazon’s leadership values is that leaders “Are Right, A Lot“. And so, if your naive formula is:

  • Hire smart people.
  • Ask them to be “right, a lot”.
  • Ask them to surface when they disagree with decisions.
  • Ask them to then commit to move forward with the decision they disagreed with.
  • Assume that things will just work.

.. your team won’t be set up for success.

The Solution

Does this mean that disagree and commit doesn’t work? Not quite. We don’t to throw the baby out with the bathwater. It’s naive disagree and commit that’s dangerous. To successfully implement disagree and commit, you need to go a step further.

First, you need to foster psychological safety. Research has found that psychological safety (how safe people feel in taking risks and expressing themselves) is correlated with high-performance on teams. People should feel safe expressing disagreement, without worrying too hard about whether they are wrong.

Second, prioritize getting to the right answer over being right. Getting to the right answer means healthy, rigorous debate. It means knowing when to disagree and commit, and when to draw a line in the sand. It means correcting your assumptions or opinions when they’re wrong.

Third, turn any disagreement energy into risk mitigation energy. When people disagree, it’s because they’re worried about some risk. So channel their (or your) energy into trying to mitigate that risk. “You don’t think denormalizing this data model is the right decision because you’re worried about consistency issues? Well, let’s figure out how we can denormalize this model while minimizing the risk of consistency issues.

Third, make it a cultural norm that people aren’t just expected to say they disagree and commit, they are expected to actually fully commit. You don’t want people to say they disagree and commit but still be dealing with their little “I can’t admit I was wrong” demons. You also don’t want people to say they disagree and commit, but then disengage and not put in 100%. What you really want is people who disagree, commit and try to prove themselves wrong.

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