The other day while skimming LinkedIn I came across yet another one of those cheesy quotes that, unfortunately, have become all too common on the site: “Surround yourself with people on the same mission.” I proceeded to get into an online discussion with several people who have probably never held a serious leadership position in their careers. I should have known better, or maybe I’ve just spent too many decades in the trenches.
This concept has bothered me for many years, back to when I first read the similar concept floated by Jim Collins of “get the right people on the bus” with the corollary of “get the right people in the right seats.” I’ll give most of you a couple minutes to finish genuflecting since I mentioned the name Jim Collins. Many of you probably still do the same when someone utters the name “Jack Welch,” even if you know of his ridiculous hypocritical postulations on the value of people. The turkey.
Jim Collins’ metaphor is well-intended, but often misinterpreted to mean that everyone must be perfectly aligned and think the same. Similarly, the statement of “surround yourself with people on the same mission” is misinterpreted to mean that everyone must be looking forward and following the leader… even if she is leading the flock off a cliff.
In my experience the people that have helped my organizations progress the most, capitalize on the unique opportunity, or address the hidden underlying issue, are those that are a little different – a little out of line. I’ve often vehemently disagreed with some of them until I stopped to think about their perspective. Then I, and others on my staff, found value.
Yes there is a fine line between being a contrarian with a unique perspective and someone who is simply negative – and perhaps destructive. It’s definitely more difficult to lead an organization with such people, and it can be frustrating to others in the organization. The natural human desire is to have a calm, positive, aligned environment. Kumbayah… off a cliff.
I’d argue that such unquestioning alignment is even more dangerous that the potential impact of a contrarian crossing the line to destructive negativism. Opportunities may not be discovered, and risks identified and addressed. Organizations that try to root out troublemakers and politicians and scientists that try to squelch debate by calling something “settled” do so at their own risk. Lo and behold, the world is not flat.
A scene in the recent movie World War Z was intriguing along these same lines. We are surprised to learn that Israel is already prepared for the highly unlikely zombie outbreak thanks to a concept called “the tenth man.” Basically when nine people on Israel’s intelligence directorate (AMAN) are convinced of one direction, it is the responsibility of the tenth to investigate and find facts to argue the opposite.
Just a movie? Actually no. The Brookings Institution documented this leadership strategy in a 2007 paper titled Lessons from Israel’s Intelligence Reforms. An interesting read on many levels, believe it or not.
First, in order to make sure that different and opposing opinions are heard within the Israeli intelligence community, AMAN has a culture of openness, where individuals are expected to voice dissenting opinions. The organizational slogan that reflects this openness is, “Freedom of opinion, discipline in action.” AMAN has two other tools that promote diversity: the “devil’s advocate” office and the option of writing “different opinion” memos.
The devil’s advocate office ensures that AMAN’s intelligence assessments are creative and do not fall prey to group think. The office regularly criticizes products coming from the analysis and production divisions, and writes opinion papers that counter these departments’ assessments. The staff in the devil’s advocate office is made up of extremely experienced and talented officers who are known to have a creative, “outside the box” way of thinking. Perhaps as important, they are highly regarded by the analysts. As such, strong consideration is given to their conclusions and their memos go directly to the office of the Director of Military Intelligence, as well as to all major decision makers. The devil’s advocate office also proactively combats group think and conventional wisdom by writing papers that examine the possibility of a radical and negative change occurring within the security environment. This is done even when the defense establishment does not think that such a development is likely, precisely to explore alternative assumptions and worst-case scenarios.
While the devil’s advocate office is an institutional level safeguard against group think, there is also an individual-level safeguard. The analysts themselves are given venues for expressing alternate opinions. Any analyst can author a “different opinion” memo in which he or she can critique the conclusions of his or her department. Senior officers do not criticize analysts who choose to write such memos.
Sorry about the long excerpt, but it’s valuable. The Israelis aren’t the only ones to embrace this concept.
The term “Devil’s Advocate” actually came from none other than the Catholic Church. The formal term was “Promoter of the Faith” and the position was created in 1587 to provide an intentional dissenting perspective when discussing whether to grant sainthood. Their job was to make an argument for why canonization should not occur. The position and practice was abolished by Pope John Paul II in 1983. Interestingly, there have been an unprecedented number of canonizations and beatifications since then, including Pope John Paul II.
So what do you do with people in your organization that bring up alternatives, especially in a constructive way? How about those that may not be as deft at doing it in a constructive manner? Do you kick them off the bus? Or do you find them a seat, working with them so they understand how to still be constructive and respectful, realizing that they are potentially one of the most valuable parts of the organization?
Alignment of mission and being on the same bus does not mean that everyone must always agree. In fact, it’s best if they don’t.