Disagree and commit

Disagree and commit to ship things faster

Tl;dr: A blog on disagree and commit. If you want to make better decisions, in a faster time frame, reduce meeting hell and analysis paralysis, then implement disagree and commit. In short, everyone shares their opinion, argues their case and a decision gets made. Everyone who disagreed sucks it up and ships the project with 100% commitment

Management by consensus

If you were to think of the most infuriating aspect of working in a big corporation, what would it be? That things don’t get done. Endless meetings where the only next step seems to be to have yet another meeting.

Why are there so many meetings? Well, it’s a business principle called “management by consensus” which Native Americans and Quakers have been utilizing for hundreds of years and large companies for decades. It involves getting everyone on the same page before moving forward.

Consensus decision-making is a group decision-making process in which group members develop, and agree to support a decision in the best interest of the whole group or common goal. Consensus may be defined professionally as an acceptable resolution, one that can be supported, even if not the “favourite” of each individual.

When you are working 9 to 5 for the man, your goal is to get promoted and not make mistakes, which might get in the way of that. That’s why, I was told from a former Sony exec, that Sony doesn’t innovate anymore. Everyone keeps their head down. How do decisions get made then? Slowly and safely.

Once you choose a path forward it introduces the possibility of failure. Hiding behind consensus creates a cover.

Clearly, if you want to get things done, you are going to have to break some eggs. Someone is going to have to be unhappy. Only, you don’t want those people to work to sabotage a decision to prove themselves right.

Three Powerful Words

For startups and more innovative companies, there clearly needs to be a different approach to getting shizzle done.

It’s called “Disagree and commit.”

Disagree and commit is a:

  • Management technique for handling conflict, which
  • encourages alignment and goal achievement.

There are two parts to it.

  • Not only expecting, but demanding teammates to voice disagreement when making an important decision
  • Uniting the team to commit to a decision and that once it has been made that no matter point of view, everyone commits to its success.

Basically, everyone gets to sell their position on a decision, but if you disagree and lose, you don’t be a dick and work your ass off to execute on it.

Ok, but let’s put this into context. Meet Jezz Bezos. In his 2016 Letter to Shareholders he wrote this interesting piece:

This phrase will save a lot of time. If you have conviction on a particular direction even though there’s no consensus, it’s helpful to say, “Look, I know we disagree on this but will you gamble with me on it? Disagree and commit?” By the time you’re at this point, no one can know the answer for sure, and you’ll probably get a quick yes.

I disagree and commit all the time. We recently greenlit a particular Amazon Studios original. I told the team my view: debatable whether it would be interesting enough, complicated to produce, the business terms aren’t that good, and we have lots of other opportunities. They had a completely different opinion and wanted to go ahead. I wrote back right away with “I disagree and commit and hope it becomes the most watched thing we’ve ever made.” Consider how much slower this decision cycle would have been if the team had actually had to convince me rather than simply get my commitment.

Where did disagree and commit come from and who applies it?

Wikipedia defines disagree and commit as:

Disagree and commit is a management principle which states that individuals are allowed to disagree while a decision is being made, but that once a decision has been made, everybody must commit to it. The principle can also be understood as a statement about when it is useful to have conflict and disagreement, with the principle saying disagreement is useful in early states of decision-making while harmful after a decision has been made. Disagree and commit is a method of avoiding the consensus trap, in which the lack of consensus leads to inaction.

It is not super clear who coined the phrase:

  • Scott McNealy used the phrase as early as sometime between 1983 and 1991, as part of the line “Agree and commit, disagree and commit, or get out of the way
  • Like many businesses concepts, many attribute it to Andrew Grove at Intel from High Output Management. Patrick Lencioni’s talks about the concepts in his books “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” and “The Advantage”, and credits its origin to Intel
  • Jeff Bezos arguably popularised it in his “2016 Letter to Shareholders” “Have a Backbone; Disagree and Commit”

Great teams avoid the consensus trap by embracing a concept that Intel, the legendary microchip manufactured calls “disagree and commit”. Basically, they believe that even when people can’t come to an agreement around an issue, they must still leave the room unambiguously committed to a common course of action.

Patrick Lencioni

Companies that publicly state they apply the principle:

  • Amazon.com
  • Chef Software
  • GitLab
  • Intel
  • Sun Microsystems

Why do you want disagreement?

Let’s get into why disagreement positive when making a decision.

More informed decisions

Peter Drucker, a godfather of management, shares a story about Alfred Sloan, who in the 1930’s, turned General Motors into the world’s largest company.

The story is about a meeting with the advisory board of General Motors wherein an important decision had to be made. After discussing with the board and realising that everyone agreed with the proposal Alfred said the following:

“I propose we postpone further discussion of this matter until our next meeting to give ourselves time to develop disagreement and perhaps gain some understanding of what the decision is all about.”

Alfred was trying to avoid the Consensus Trap. This is management consulting speak for having no balls and being unable to speak up. You know this is happening when everyone in the room (especially if the boss is there) agrees to a course of action… but really:

  • Pretty much everyone disagrees but feels saying nothing is safer
  • It’s not an important decision and they’ve found speaking up is futile as the senior person in the room gets his way anyway, so why bother
  • The decision is so important that nobody wants to take the risk of being tied to failure as in your company a black mark is assigned to you
  • Meetings are run with no agenda, preparation and go on forever. Obviously, everyone wants to get back to pretending to work and looking at cat pictures, so not disagreeing will aid in that endeavor

How do you know you are stuck in the consensus trap?

Listen. How quiet is the room? If there is not a heated debate, but you rather have silence, you’re there.

Silence does not mean that people agree. You now need to ask each and every person if they agree with a decision.

Risky and innovative decisions are encouraged

But beyond making informed decisions, you want to allow for more innovative but risky decisions to be made.

Before you ‘commit’ you need to think about what you are committing to? Are you making safe bets? Do people feel comfortable proposing something very risky but potentially a game changer to the company?

Well, if you are disrupting an industry and all the sales BS you tell VCs and the media, you have to be making risky bets.

Here is another term that Bezos believes in and it is called “fail and learn”. It’s another principle you should know about and adopt.

Bezos first wrote about risk-taking in Amazon’s first annual shareholder letter in 1997:

“Given a 10 percent chance of a 100-times payout, you should take that bet every time … Failure and invention are inseparable twins. To invent you have to experiment, and if you know in advance that it’s going to work, it’s not an experiment.”

This is a key component in explaining the benefits and principles to long-term thinking and Bezos quotes that letter in every year’s annual letter. No one can disagree with how long-term thinking has led to Amazon to becoming a global force.

The two key points here are:

  • You need to be placing 100x bets
  • If you know something is going to work, you aren’t taking enough risk

You only get to the point where big, risky ideas happen if there is a culture where some people will disagree, but suffer their pride and take a risk.

Decisions get made faster

The problem with moving fast and breaking things is that you need to actually move fast. The implication of this for decision making is that you will never have perfect information. Improving your data set will take time and you will never have enough past a certain point.

What point is that? Bezos believes the following:

“Most decisions should probably be made with somewhere around 70% of the information you wish you had. If you wait for 90%, in most cases, you’re probably being slow.”

Disagree and commit encourages people to debate honestly but to then make a decision, aware they do not have perfect information.

Bezos wrote in one of his letters to investors about time-saving:

Third, use the phrase “disagree and commit.” This phrase will save a lot of time. If you have conviction on a particular direction even though there’s no consensus, it’s helpful to say, “Look, I know we disagree on this but will you gamble with me on it? Disagree and commit?”

Jeff Bezos

You need to have an environment that embraces failure though. Note Bezos mentions ‘gamble‘. He by no way is saying ‘Gamble with me on it and you will be fired if it doesn’t work‘.

Committing mean shipping

The only way to know if something is going to work is by testing it. The earlier you get started the sooner you will know.

Once you have got everyone to disagree, it’s time for them to agree! They need to agree to commit.

Committing means that every person on the team, regardless of whether they disagreed, must now do whatever they can to implement it.

But people are petty, right? Why commit to a decision they didn’t believe in?

They lost at convincing the group. They had an open forum to express their views and for them to be actively listened to. People need to feel they had their say. And let’s face it they may, in fact, be wrong.

Not that you have to work on the decision, you want to work hard on it? Why? It’s funny actually.

Andy Grove, the “The Father of OKR” will explain for me:

“If you disagree with an idea, you should work especially hard to implement it well because that way when it fails you’ll know it was a bad idea. Not bad execution.”

Andy Grove.

You only won the argument about ‘bad ideas’ if the bad idea was executed on properly and was in fact just a bad idea, executed well.

Furthermore, if you have to work on something you disagree with, you can work on something you do agree with faster once you have shipped and tested it.

This isn’t going to work everywhere

Ok, this sounds like a splendid concept, but let’s face it, it’s going to be hard to implement.

People are used to reporting lines, seniority, difference and all other types of pussy behavior. Senior people are used to getting their way. Juniors are afraid of speaking up.

I found this comment an interesting example of how lip service can be paid to a principle, but not actioned.

An engineer at Amazon said on Hackernews:

Few people at amazon will disagree with a superior based on a vague feeling. I, as a business intelligence engineer, had no excuse to disagree without substantial proof or evidence backing my disagreement. That never mattered. If you disagree with someone a level higher than you, you need to not only have perfect evidence, but also the backing of several people at that same higher level or higher.

For example, one time I disagreed with my director, who spent his entire career navigating by the seat of his pants. I was generally considered an expert in the subject, after having written several whitepapers that had become canonical reference amongst higher level leaders. That didn’t matter, he never conceded the point and he treated me like shit until his boss told him he was wrong (which was after I transfered to a different org). This demonstrates this problem on two levels: he wouldn’t tolerate any disagreement from me right up until the point where he realized that he was the one with the unapproved opinion.

How to make it work at your startup?

Leaders need to take it seriously

Disagree is one of the principles of leadership at Amazon:

13. Have backbone, disagree and commit

Leaders are obligated to respectfully challenge decisions when they disagree, even when doing so is uncomfortable or exhausting. Leaders have conviction and are tenacious. They do not compromise for the sake of social cohesion. Once a decision is determined, they commit wholly.

The implications here are:

  • You respectfully challenge decisions
  • You don’t be lazy and let decisions go unchallenged
  • You turn up prepared to meetings
  • You’re prepared to speak your mind freely, even if it means things get heated
  • You debate the idea not the person
  • You don’t be a pussy and not challenge because you want ‘social cohesion’
  • A decision gets made regardless
  • You don’t always get your way and always commit

An Amazon engineer chimed in with:

Bezos also emphasizes that disagree-and-commit is a hard requirement: “Leaders are obligated to respectfully challenge decisions when they disagree, even when doing so is uncomfortable or exhausting.”

I agree on both terms. If you plan and test everything to death, you are wasting and in fact atrophying our ability to think on your feet. This is an important skill, especially during incident and emergency handling. It’s a fine line to learn, and it changes with the team, and the company, and the projects, but it’s important.

Challenging decisions is the best way to keep unproductive work away from the team, and unproductive work is one of the best ways to waste time and motivation of a team. Even if it exhausts me at the end of a week, it’s a good thing to see 2-3 guys getting excited about a project they should do, because it doesn’t contradict our values and it furthers our infrastructure.

Leaders should not get their way. Logic should win

What’s the point of a meeting if the leader already has the answer? Why have a debate if the leader always gets their way? How infuriating would that be to you?

The reality is that most organizations are hierarchal. People do not treat views equally. This means it can be difficult to disagree with more senior people. Juniors are frankly scared of looking stupid. This is counter to disagree and commit.

And beyond just the juniors, everyone suffers from some kind of imposter syndrome.

A former Amazon engineer weighed in on HackerNews on his view of the principle and see what he says about ‘the bad’ :

The disagree and commit principle is a double-edged sword.

The good: it’s taken relatively seriously, it’s not just some empty PR line. It allows you to prove to managers and colleagues that you know what you are doing instead of following the heard. It encourages people to prove their ideas with prototypes instead of talk and more talk. It discourages “design by committee” and blame shifting. It’s refreshing to be able to disagree openly and challenge popular views.

The bad: It takes a lot of self-confidence. Some people might feel insecure due to impostor syndrome, upbringing or belonging to minorities and this creates a disadvantage. Also, it’s really exhausting in the long term.

Neutral: if you disagree, commit and fail it becomes a very public failure. On the bright side, it teaches people not to disagree too lightheartedly.

Staff need to have conviction and backbone

You need to hire people who are capable of being outspoken. Not everyone is born saying what they think. But in a ‘safe space’ pretty much everyone will share their view.

Sharing a view is not the same thing as committing to your view with a view to bringing people to your way of thinking. Just saying ‘I don’t think this will work’ is pointless. You need to explain in detail what the key risk factors are and why they will make the proposed decision fail.

In short, it’s about backbone.

Another Amazon engineer wrote regarding the consequences of disagreeing that you need to do it with more ‘backbone’:

Been with the company for 3 years and this has happened to me once.

I disagreed but committed in an issue I saw. It soon turned out to be a production issue for a different team, as I had correctly called out and warned about…

I got called out in 1 on 1 by my senior manager for not having enough backbone.

Even if you know you are right, you need to convince others you are.

Quantify how long it will take to test an idea. It might be faster than debating

Are you debating implementing a feature? How much time will it take to code and test?

Think about it. You are having meetings with 5, maybe 10 people in a room. Every hour spent is a multiple of team hours. Meetings are expensive.

I found this comment on Hackernews interesting. He says it can be faster to just make a prototype and ship it, and if in doubt go with a simple version.

Don’t know how it works at Amazon, but we have a similar rule to avoid teams getting paralyzed on design decisions. I’ve also worked at companies that didn’t do this, and spent more time in design meetings than it would have taken to code a simple prototype.

Following this principle too many times isn’t necessarily an indication that the team doesn’t align with you, it can also be a sign your communication skills are lacking, and you need to get better in how you convey your ideas (unfortunately talking from my own experience).

A good tie-breaker is usually picking the simpler idea, to avoid perfectionism or over-engineering that engineers sometimes fall into. It seems especially common with people straight out of uni, and lessens with experience.

Conclusion

I think this is a fab principle you should introduce in your organisation. It starts with you being ok with candor and allowing people to challenge you.

Over time you may get to the point where emails simple say ‘Disagree and commit’ and everyone gets to work.

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