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What Amazon Can Teach a Polarized World About Constructive Disagreement

...use the phrase, 'disagree and commit.' This phrase will save you a lot of time. Jeff Bezos, CEO/Founder, Amazon, Letter to Shareholders, 4/12/17

We are deteriorating faster than we can lower our standards. Anne Lamott

Relationship Fundamentalism is the belief that it is our moral duty to disassociate ourselves with anyone with whom we disagree. It is hypocritically out of step with a society that gives so much lip service to diversity, collaboration, grace and freedom. Yet it seems our knee-jerk, default response to disagreement is often “de-commit, disengage, disparage” – my way or the highway – even though we may mostly agree on other issues. Our hardening intolerance feeds a a growing self-righteousness that justifies erasing relationships based on ideological, theological, and political differences.

A cornerstone of productive relationships is disagreeing constructively by staying committed to and engaged in relational purpose bigger than ourselves – like our marriage, friendship, employer, church, and our country and its elected leaders. Rather than looking for common ground, relationship fundamentalism pushes the pendulum of opinions to ever-wider and more polarizing arcs. We swing from Obama to Trump, the UK swings from Brexit and Prime Minister May’s Conservative Party toward Corbyn’s liberal Labor Party. Families fracture, churches split, colleges erupt, and political parties war against their own members. In promoting extreme change, we get volatility, change that doesn’t stick and most often no-change-at-all. In a world where information and technology have accelerated the change coming at us, society’s ability to hang-together and respond decisively has greatly slowed and at times, stopped.

While Rome burns, we fiddle in the face of a profound question: How shall we survive today’s growing “disagreement” chasm? Disagreements are not new – they are inevitable, necessary, messy and – appropriately managed – are the raw material for constructive change. Where can we find a model for transforming our destructive differences and disagreements into constructive efforts?

Amazon: High-Velocity Decision-Making – Failing Fast and Cheap

Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder and CEO thinks the cost and opportunity associated with disagreement is worthy of his latest shareholder letter. One of his greatest fears is that Amazon would become slow and indecisive, grinding-down to become what he describes as a “Day 2” type company: stasis, followed by excruciating, painful decline, followed by death. Sooner or later disagreement degenerates into either action or no-action. His goal of keeping Amazon a “Day 1” company means avoiding the slow, exhausting path of unresolved disagreement and its offspring – sluggish decision-making. He knows no matter how intent you are, bad decisions are a costly fact of life. So, since bad decisions and failure are a fact of life – the key is to fail fast and cheap rather than slow and expensively.

Bezos is backed-up by recent research by Elena Botelho and reported at Wharton that finds top leaders stand out not just for the quality of their decisions but more so for speed: quality times velocity. Bad decisions often become apparent fairly rapidly and often can be reversed if acted upon. No matter how invested we are in getting it right, we are often wrong; learning quickly and then refining or reversing our course is the superior path. In short, decide fast and cheap and then correct fast and cheap. In my company, we called it “learn-do-learn” and the low-risk place to learn fast/cheap failure we called “Off-Broadway.”

This approach means recasting what failure is. Failure is a key step in accelerating learning, development and advancement. Clearly for really big decisions – getting it right is paramount, but often the risk of a big decision is best mitigated by experimenting and even failing with a series of smaller decisions.

Let’s look at three constructive steps for addressing disagreement that apply not only to business but to home, politics and faith.

Disagree and Commit

Bezos recommends five words to speed-up decision-making bogged down in protracted debate: I disagree and I commit. Disagreement is an invitation to see things differently, even innovatively. He describes how it is relationally authentic and often effective for him: “It’s a genuine disagreement of opinion, a candid expression of my view, a chance for the team to weigh my view, and a quick, sincere commitment to go their way.”

The ability to commit must be de-linked from agreement—they are two very different animals. Agreement can’t always be a prerequisite to commitment. Agreement is our linkage to fallible personal opinions, beliefs and preferences. Commitment is relational linkage – giving to and engaging in someone/something bigger than me.

Clearly there are times when ‘not-committing’ is the right, honorable decision. However, often our biggest breakthroughs – home, work, politics, faith – come from industrial-strength commitment, tested and made stronger by disagreement.

Prioritize Productive Relationships

Committing to the team, even when we disagree, builds the type of productive relationships that speeds-up execution and improves sustainability. Harvard’s strategic planning guru Michael Porter has famously said “A-level” commitment to a “B-level” strategy beats a “B-level” commitment to an “A-level” strategy. More often stakeholder commitment has a bigger impact on success than the strategy. This fits with my own organization’s experience in developing and implementing thousands of local market plans with sales and service teams on six continents. Relational commitment is the secret sauce for execution. Productive relationships have an amazing ability to self-correct flawed decisions while dysfunctional relationships have an amazing ability to self-destruct.

Relational commitment is no less important outside of business. What if Obamacare had incorporated enough input from Republicans to garner some of their support – prioritizing preferred relationships over preferred solutions? What if Republicans had put less effort into resisting and more into “disagreeing and committing” to get the best solution possible? If purposeful relational commitment had trumped ideological purity, we might have the relationship capital to move beyond today’s healthcare gridlock of a ‘broke-plan’ vs. ‘no-plan.’

Lead Stakeholders – Constructive Dissatisfaction

Getting relationships and decisions right with opposing groups is hard. Relational Leadership is about making diverse groups and interests gel. Former CEO Tom Monahan captures the challenge: “Look, I’ve got three groups of stakeholders — my shareholders, my customers, and my employees. If I were to fully satisfy any one of the three, we would be bankrupt. As a CEO, my job is to keep them all constructively dissatisfied in the name of making the enterprise successful so that the enterprise can deliver to them all.” Constructive dissatisfaction is the job of Relational Leadership.

As leaders and followers, what opportunities await our being more constructive in our disagreement?


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