Embracing the quiet power of “disagree and commit”

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In a previous blog, I wrote about the principle of “Progress, not perfection”, something I very much believe in and try to practice. This time I want to emphasize another principle which I believe can also be very powerful in business: “Disagree and Commit”. Credits to SAS leader Bob Messier as these are two recent quotes from him which made a lot of sense to me. I hope they will also help you.

“Progress, not perfection” describes the business principle of deciding that ‘good’ can be ‘good enough’ to implement or launch something. Waiting too long, and seeking perfection, could stall progress. Instead, it can be much better to just get things moving. This is a way of thinking that can help businesses to move forward, innovate, or increase market presence in an agile way.

“Disagree and commit” is more of an internal business process principle especially relevant for bigger, global corporations. The overall objective is to reach alignment between for example people, teams or departments. Efficiency is key in being able to move fast and agile; you do not want people to reinvent the wheel.

Efficiency is key in being able to move fast and agile; you do not want people to reinvent the wheel... Click To Tweet

This may make sense in principle, but in reality we all know that we see the opposite happening all the time. One division not trusting another one and deciding to do a similar piece of research ‘just to check’. Or one area not liking the global creative direction, and taking another route with its ‘own agency’. These things harm global brands and images.

Following through

The idea behind “Disagree and commit” is to avoid this kind of inefficiency. People are allowed and encouraged to express their opinions during the discussion stage. But once a decision is made, everyone needs to get behind it and commit to the direction. In other words, do not just say yes but then do something else. Say yes and follow through!

Amazon believes in the power of the ‘disagree and commit’ principle as well and actually made it one of their key leadership principles. Leaders are asked to ‘respectfully challenge’ decisions when they disagree, but once a decision is agreed, to commit to it wholly: “Have Backbone; Disagree and Commit”.

Focus on the greater good

I now have more than 15 years of professional experience at European HQ level, and I believe ‘disagree and commit’ is the only way to succeed as a multinational corporation. I have for example worked on global advertising campaigns that failed because they tried to keep everyone happy, but therefore lacked any kind of uniqueness or punch. Ad campaigns need to be creative: Assign people (or an agency) you trust, and let them go ahead. Creativity is often killed by consensus.

I have also seen a lot of cases of local offices deciding to do their own thing despite an existing global direction, process or campaign. If you want to always do your own thing, you might better consider starting your own company. If you work for a corporation though, then focus on the greater good and get behind it.

Central vs. Local

Another phenomenon I have seen many times during my career has been the moves from centralisation to localisation and then back again. There are advantages and disadvantages to both models:

  • A central model sets one unified direction, but it can quickly lead to a disconnection from local markets and a risk of demotivated local teams (due to less local ownership or room for creativity).
  • With a localised model you can better answer local needs but it can also easily lead to inefficiencies and a diffused brand identity.

In both situations, though, the ‘disagree and commit’ principle can be valuable as it asks for challenge of problems, followed by agreed (common) action.

The ‘ivory tower’ syndrome often comes into play in these situations as well. Especially in more centralised models with a global or regional HQ setting the direction for all local offices to follow. It often creates conflict between the HQ and local teams, with the central office accused of sitting in an ‘ivory tower’ with no idea of what is actually going on in the market.

Amplified need in a Network organisation

At SAS we have now moved to an ‘in-between’ model that we call the Network organisation. Inspired by Peter Hinssen’s book ‘The Network Always Wins’, it is a hybrid model with most people having local roles, but on top being involved in pan-EMEA networks. These networks bring subject specialists together from various countries, working on common projects. It therefore only requires a smaller central team responsible for leadership, direction and coordination.

The hybrid nature of the model might make it more complicated to start with, but we expect it to prove its value in the long run. It allows our teams to stay close to their markets while at the same time facilitating a platform to exchange best practices and to build common plans. And again, also this type of organisational model will benefit from widespread adoption of ‘disagree and commit’.

What do you think of the “Disagree and commit” principle in general? Have you experienced these local vs. central tensions, and do you see the power of the principle as well? It would be great to hear your views.

 

 

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About Author

Bas Belfi

Senior Manager, EMEA Marketing Operations

Bas still feels like the ‘new kid’ on the Analytics block, with a background in
Marketing and Business management. What’s different about his fresh perspective? You’ll see how a non-technical person perceives all things technical (think #IoT and #AI). It’s all in an effort to connect the Business and Analytics worlds, step by step.

2 Comments

  1. Beverly Brown
    Beverly Brown on

    Good piece, Bas. Successful projects where I've had a role had a spirit of "disagree and commit," which led to unity when it mattered most: execution. In a recent study, SAS helped prove that effective leaders harness clashing viewpoints. The same study also confirms your point about following through. Turns out "delivering reliably" not only helps you land a CEO job, it also helps you succeed once you're hired. Harvard Business Review featured the research on its May cover: https://www.sas.com/en_us/news/press-releases/2017/may/ghsmart-hbr-ceo-genome-project.html

    • Bas Belfi

      Hi Beverly, thanks for the comment! I enjoyed writing it so it's great to hear people enjoyed reading it as well. 🙂 Unity and efficiency are so important, especially when we think about globalization. At the same time, enough room should be left to 'act locally' so that's the difficult balance to manage. Thanks for providing the link to that CEO study! Great to know that SAS is involved in something like that as well.

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