I got a greatlesson in how to lead group discussions from Bill Barnett, a professor at Stanford’s business school.Many years ago he agreed to facilitate a strategy meeting for NetApp. Therewere eighty or a hundred people, and Bill was going around the room, askingpeople to share their thoughts on an important strategy decision. People raisedtheir hand to talk, and hand after hand, comment after comment, everyone was infavor. It seemed that there was no dissent at all.
After quite a while of this, Bill said, “Okay, I think we’ve fleshed out the argument in favor ofthe proposal well enough. Does anyone have a completely different point ofview?”
To my surprise, adozen hands went up. Now it was hand after hand from people against theproposal. At least as many comments against as we had previously heard insupport. What was going on here?
My first reactionwas frustration. If these people disagreed, why hadn’t they said anythingbefore? We could easily have adopted the plan thinking that we had full supportfrom everyone in the room. To be honest, people who won’t speak up piss me off.How can we make good decisions if people won’t point out the flaws they see?Some problems may be so deadly that they kill the plan we are considering. Evensmall flaws may need to be addressed for the plan to succeed. Perhaps somepeople think that raising concerns is disloyal. They’d rather go with the flowthan be seen as troublemakers. I disagree. If you spot a problem that othersdon’t know about, I think it’s irresponsible to keep quiet. In fact, keepingquiet is disloyal because it sets your group up for failure.
My second reaction,though, was admiration for Bill’s simple technique. Despite my frustration,I’ve come to accept that some people won’t speak up, and now I use Bill’stechnique myself. It’s amazing how often his simple question—“Does anyone have theopposite point of view?”—triggers a very different discussion. I think it worksbecause it acknowledges that other opinions may also be valid, and it givesvery specific permission for people to express dissent.
This technique canalso help “flush out agreement.” Have you ever been in a meeting where peoplekeep talking and talking even though they all seem to be saying the same thing?Sometimes it’s because the dissenters are keeping quiet, but sometimes it’sbecause everybody really does agree. In that case, asking whether anyone hasthe opposite opinion can help move the meeting forward. Nobody says anything,and it becomes (hopefully) obvious that it’s time to stop talking.
I still wish thatpeople would speak up on their own, but now I have a tool to encourage them.Plus, I have a fantasy that using this technique repeatedly over time can helpchange a company’s culture, to teach people that it is okay to speak up.
Does anyone havethe opposite point of view?