Extracting value from Fear and Loathing

February 7, 2012

About 12 months ago, I attended an early morning meeting whose sole purpose was to approve a short list of strategic options. Based on bravado over the bacon and eggs and the strong opinions regarding the ‘follies’ of certain investments, I was looking forward to a hearty debate prior to exultant agreement. However, within minutes it became clear that the dawn bluster was all wind. I think the phrase from the home state is, “big hat, no cattle.”

Giving this CEO his due, he did ask for dissenting and contrarian perspective before taking the final decision; and subsequently misread the silence and sub-table feet shuffling as assent. Yet another non-implementable project was launched; the ship was really a submarine.

During the mid-morning break I questioned the team members as to why they didn’t respond to the solicitation for challenge. Response ranged from fear, “anyone who has raised objections before is no longer around the table—and I don’t want to send out my resumé just yet” to loathing, ”why bother, he won’t listen anyway. He’s just ticking another box from yet another management textbook.”

The end market is a sector of the natural resources industry, whose dangerous operating environment has lead to the abundance of individuals with fierce independence and physicality at all levels of management within the customer and supplier base. With revenue of $750m and over 4,000 employees, this is not a modestly-sized organisation staffed by compliant managers. The average business experience within the leadership team is 20 years. All members of the team seem to be of stout personality reinforced by robust self-esteem. So why the reticence to raise issues or, to use the phrase of one participant, “I struggle to understand the presence of such ‘Fear and Loathing’ on certain topics in the team”?

With permission of team members, I raised the issue with the leader. This lead to a fruitful discussion in the afternoon with immediate benefit. The result was a challenged, amended and supported project, which has since been implemented with market and operational success.

Companies are loosing money by not addressing ‘Fear and Loathing.’ How can you hope to bring in a culture of tolerated failure if the climate fails to allow for even the most modest of dissent.

But this team dynamic is not uncommon, and I have found team performance can be improved by the application of three processes.

1. Introduce Ritualised Dissent. Ritual allows for either delegation of authority or permission to challenge without the concomitant loss of face to the leader. An example is the Devil’s Advocate. The roll of Devil’s Advocate was introduced by the Catholic Church in 1587. The role required the holder to prepare arguments against the raising of any one to the honours of the altar, the aim being to guard the interest and honour of the Church and preventing anyone from receiving those honours whose death is not juridically proved to have been “precious in the sight of God.”

In recent articles by Seth Godin the role of Devil’s Advocate has recently been maligned. This view has been re-tweeted and re-blogged on a huge number of leading leadership’ websites and, almost without expectation, there have pledges to replace the Devil’s Advocate with Guardian Angels. I have even seen a website advert for some baseball caps and t-shirts, harking (if you’ll excuse the pun) that “GA’s give business wings.” Postage extra outside of North America.

But this is too narrow a perspective and does a disservice to the role. Both Godin and his followers forget that the real ritual dissent is done by request, without loss of face and with permission. The last of these is in some way the most critical. With this, the other aspects can follow. In some ways, ritual dissent is access to cheap, quick and thorough, safe-to-fail experimentation.

2. Give them tools so they can finish the job. In addition to setting the stage for ritual dissent, participants need to have the tools and method to play their role fully. As mentioned elsewhere by Snowden, the school system (in the UK at least) provided an introduction to the Socrate method through enforced use of debating societies and role plays. These sessions may have painful and embarrassing but they did provide some useful insight the best approaches to argument and presentation. And why not exploit the passion of youth to build up capability? Teach them to argue for the alternate position; make the 17 year old Snowden the proposer that “this house believes the England Rugby team to be the best in the world.”

3. Improve self-esteem by testing the mettle. Having been given ritual and tools, the individual must have resolve. We all need some component of stress inoculation. Part of this will arise from the process and proficiency in argument. However, when ritual is only newly introduced, and when exposure to tools of debate and argument are lacking, a reinforcement of self-esteem and self-confidence is an important starting point. I do this through a half-day workshop called, ‘the Foundry’ and I can write out this at another time in more detail if there is interest.

So, if you want a short workshop to drive up value, and drive out fear and loathing, consider these 4 steps:

1. Ground the workshop in an important issue that needs resolution; strategy, marketing, investment etc
2. Introduce the concept of ritual and its benefits. My clients love Ritual Dissent
3. Give the group tools. I have had outstanding success by bringing in a (very experienced) member of the local debating society to provide a toolkit in a 90 minute session.
4. Run a two-hour session that tests the mettle (safely) of the group members, and builds esteem and confidence at an individual level.

One response to “Extracting value from Fear and Loathing”

  1. Excellent. Giving the devil his due is a vital part of any important decision.

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The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

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