Saturday, January 26, 2008

Listening to the Lone Dissenter

While leading City Harvest, I focused on creating a culture that fostered continuous improvement. One key strategy was to listen to the lone dissenter in a discussion. 10 out of 10 times, we ended up with a better decision, project, plan or outcome.

It's a very simple strategy that requires patience from all team members, and a disciplined consistency from the team leader. Patience is required because often teams come to a point where almost everyone agrees on a solution and those in agreement want to use "majority rules" and move on. The last thing they want to do is listen to the one person who seems unwilling to go along with the group. That's why the leader must consistently use the strategy and resist the pressure to close discussion.

I often implemented this strategy when my team and I were deciding whether and when to start a project, or to change some kind of personnel practice. My team of 7 or 8 people would discuss the desired outcome and how to implement it for a period of time. Someone would keep notes and usually I facilitated the discussion to reach conclusions and keep us on track toward making a group decision.

At a certain point, it was obvious that people were repeating points and we were ready to see if we could end the discussion with a decision. When I polled team members, I encouraged them to voice any objections or hesitations. If someone did so, then the group gave that person the floor to lay out his or her concern or issue.

The group then discussed those objections or hesitations, seeking to resolve them satisfactorily. Usually, this meant some kind of revision in the decision or plan - its content, its timing, the delivery mechanism, communication methods, people responsible, feedback mechanisms, etc. Sometimes, we realized we were not ready to make a decision and needed more research. Interestingly, the subsequent discussion usually took far less time than people feared - another 20 to 30 minutes. This extra time saved us from potential ruinous results.

Whatever the result, it was improved dramatically by listening to the lone dissenter. Our strategy demonstrated respect for everyone's opinion, made room for the less vocal team members to make their points, and allowed someone who thought more deliberately to raise questions. By not rushing to follow a "majority rule" decision, I ensured that our decisions were as thoughtful and effective as possible.

I intend to provide an example of how this worked so will have to do some research into my old notes. In the meantime, give it a try!

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