Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Being disagreeable requires tremendous personal courage. It’s difficult to step forward and be reviled, ridiculed, & degraded. Unless you’re a grouch, then it’s easy.

“No” is a simple, short word. Easy to say. Unambiguous in meaning. And nobody wants to hear it.

Being negative is bad. Right? Disagreeable people are unpleasant. The world would be nicer if everybody just moved along with the flow. When a subject matter expert says something, we should trust it. Experts are knowledgeable and usually very trustworthy. They know a lot about everything. Clearly, skepticism is inappropriate.

However, a few exceptions are allowed. For instance, icebergs ahead. If you’re the first passenger on the ocean liner to notice one, mention it. The ship & crew might be excellent, but perhaps they missed it. And another instance, complications. Project teams want to recognize complications “before” they happen. Even the best teams miss some details. A few more exceptions to mention with healthy skepticism: hidden process steps, barriers to change, secret agendas, bad ideas, flawed solutions, previous mistakes, confused messages, better ideas, bad data, bad data analysis, strategic plan changes, etc.

Often, disagreements are incredibly valuable. When that first person sees the iceberg, nobody else needs to agree, yet no other opinion matters as much. No other voice needs to be as clearly heard. Expert opinions? Consensus decisions? Authoritative certifications? Okay, those are good, but failure awaits all who minimize the value of perspective and context.

When making difficult decisions, James Surowiecki in “The Wisdom Of Crowds” recommends against relying on the wisdom of only 1-2 experts. Their expertise is essential, but for the best conclusions, additional opinions are needed. High quality crowd decisions depend on the insights of independent individuals (not influenced by authority).

“Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds” by Charles Mackay (1841) [Project Gutenberg ] paints a different picture, where adding more people makes decisions and conclusions worse. He provides detailed examples where human psychology triggered irrational actions. To minimize this risk, Surowiecki says free access to reliable information is critical.

Bottom line? When considering an optimum course of action, be disagreeable. Ultimately, diverse opinions (respectfully shared) are more valuable than group harmony.

Nonetheless, free bagels & soda for the project team are always welcome.

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