In his book, “You're About to Make a Terrible Mistake: How Biases Distort Decision-Making and What You Can Do to Fight Them”, Oliver Sibony stressed the importance of dedicating time to dialog (e.g. exploring the problem space) before spending time making the choice. Dedicated time for divergent thinking can expand the set of options, and allow for greater understanding of the factors that should drive the choice.
But what if leaders don’t want to do this?
Or, more accurately: What if their history of success has made it uncomfortable for them to engage in this kind of dialog?
This is the premise of Chris Argyris, who wrote about organizational learning at Harvard Business School. He believed that successful leaders, who rarely experience failure, will quickly get defensive and avoid criticism when advocating ideas in settings with significant uncertainty. He adds,:
“In short, their ability to learn shuts down precisely at the moment they need it most.” (HBR, 1991).
He goes on to say that changing the incentives for leaders in this position (with tools like performance reviews, corporate culture, or compensation systems), won’t make a difference. This kind of learning, “is not simply a function of how people feel. It is a reflection of how they think—that is, the cognitive rules or reasoning they use to design and implement their actions.” To that end, he recommends teaching these leaders how to reason about their own behavior, to break down the defenses that inhibit learning.
As CEO of Proctor & Gamble, A.G Lafley was influenced by Argyris recommendations. He recognized that the dialog he wanted (to improve strategic decision making across his leadership teams) would not just happen by asking for it. He saw that he needed to drive “new norms for dialog” and actively support its adoption. He built an approach called Assertive Inquiry that explicitly frames the kind of dialog that was needed. He knew his leaders well. He knew their strengths in sales and advocacy were hindering quality dialog, as Argyris had said.
“In any conversation, organizational or otherwise, people tend to overuse one particular rhetorical tool at the expense of all the others. People’s default mode of communication tends to be advocacy— argumentation in favor of their own conclusions and theories, statements about the truth of their own point of view. To create the kind of strategy dialogue we wanted at P&G, people had to shift from that approach to a very different one.” - A.G. Lafley and Roger L. Martin, “Playing to Win”, p.136
He set out to strike a better balance between advocating for your own ideas, and actively listening to the ideas of others. That is, “clearly articulating your own ideas and sharing the data and reasoning behind them, while genuinely inquiring into the thoughts and reasoning of your peers.” He had seen his strongest leaders had used their time in strategic meetings “to tackle real issues and collaborate on the answers, rather than for show and tell.” Now he sought to bring that approach to the whole organization.
How It Works
In strategic planning contexts, where uncertainty is high and the stakes are even higher, pay attention to the word choice and tone of the dialog.
Practice the following:
- Introduce your own thinking with a stance that opens up assertive inquiry (e.g. “I have a view worth hearing, but I may be missing something.”)
- Describe your view as a “possibility”, not as the “best option” or “the answer”
- Assume that there is something that you don’t yet know, and listen to others, to find it.
- Advocate your position, then invite responses (e.g. “This is how I see the situation (and why), to what extent do you see it differently?”)
- Follow this up by paraphrasing what you believe to be the other person’s view and inquire as to the validity of your understanding (e.g. “It sounds to me like your argument is this; to what extent does that capture your argument accurately?”)
- Explain any gap in your understanding of the other person’s views, and ask for more information (e.g. “It sounds like you think this acquisition is a bad idea. I’m not sure I understand how you got there. Could you tell me more?”)
When leaders fall back on old habits of advocacy, and try to convince everyone in the room that they are right, treat it as a teachable moment for assertive inquiry. Lafley adds:
“These kinds of phrases, which blend advocacy and inquiry, can have a powerful effect on the group dynamic. While it may feel more forceful to advocate, advocacy is actually a weaker move than balancing advocacy and inquiry. Inquiry leads the other person to genuinely reflect and hear your advocacy rather than ignoring it and making their own advocacy in response.”
Assertive inquiry is a tool to surface productive tensions across a group of leaders, to inform smarter choices. Look for ways to bring it into your decision architecture, when navigating uncertainty while crafting strategy for a business or product.