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Dare To Disagree Becomes The Watchword For Small Businesses

August 15, 2012

Mama, don’t let your babies grow up to be strategic weaklings.

Translation: Openness when you sit around the conference table is not sufficient to build an enduring company. Your team must deeply disagree and be willing to engage in heated discussion in order to thrive. And in many cases, you have to resist the natural drive to surround yourself with business people who think exactly like you do, and instead look for those who would challenge your thinking.

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Small business tip: Challenging ideas come from people who do not simply echo your thinking.

Margaret Heffernan details a riveting story that drives home this message in a talk that was recently published on TED. In her presentation, this ex-CEO of five companies explained how the best teams aren’t echo chambers of each other; they disagree constructively.

A brave medical researcher named Alice Stewart aimed to get to the bottom of why so many children in England were dying of cancer in the 1950’s. She hypothesized that the rising incidence of fatal childhood cancers, especially among the affluent, was not an anomaly. Rather, it was due to the high incidence of Xrays being performed on pregnant mothers.

Ms. Heffernan emphasized that on Dr. Stewart’s team was a fellow researcher named George Kneale, who actively sought to disprove her hypothesis with real data. And the more he tried to disprove it, the more she was impelled to crunch the numbers every which way to make the analysis more robust.

Their collaboration was based upon actively disagreeing and productively exploring the implications of the data. This ultimately made the research more compelling, and saved the lives of thousands of children by dismantling a medical process which represented conventional wisdom at the time, i.e. to Xray pregnant women.

The problem of nodding heads among decision-makers is pervasive, even among small businesses

Ms. Heffernan said, “In surveys of American and European executives, fully 85 percent of them acknowledged that they had issues or concerns at work that they were afraid to raise.”

Can a small business avoid this? Can your business cultivate the courage to bubble up constructive counter arguments?

We believe it can because it must. Your small business must encourage not only open talk, but actively encourage constructive arguments back and forth.

Here are a few tips. Have partners that are solid and don’t all come at a problem from the same point of view. Use outside experts, including:

  • accountants who can see the numbers differently, or
  • bankers (or consultants) who have a view towards a range of small businesses, or
  • factoring firms that offer true partnership and expertise regarding strategic decisions to ensure reliable cash flow.

To recap: Small businesses should encourage constructive arguing when making strategic decisions. Have a team that doesn’t all look alike, but reflects differing experiences and background. Your enterprise’s very best thinking will occur when you develop the skills and the habits to think through things in a way that tolerates naysayers and opposing views.

Photo courtesy of Creative Commons 2.0, Novartis AG.

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