Everyone in the meeting publicly agreed with the direction. But when it came time to allocate resources, the apparent agreement turned into active resistance.
A key to confronting this challenge is to expose misalignments. Rather than letting disagreement simmer beneath the surface, make it crystal clear where your team agrees, and where it doesn’t. We have found that real-time polling tools can bring great clarity to these discussions.
Consider an example from work we did with a privately-held professional services firm. It’s not hard to see how technologies such as blockchain and artificial intelligence could reconfigure the industry. But it’s easy to disagree about the pace and scale of change and therefore the required strategic response.
We brought the top team together to review our analysis of industry trends. After a lengthy discussion, we asked each team member to use Pigeonhole Live, a polling solution offered by a Singaporean company, on his or her smart phone to anonymously enter the percent of next year’s profits that they thought the firm should invest in new growth innovation (our firm Innosight uses Pigeonhole Live but has no formal relationship with the company). After the votes were cast, we displayed the data (waiting to unveil the votes helps to combat groupthink) as a word cloud, with numbers that had multiple votes appearing larger.
A summarized report would have shown that the average was 10 percent, with a standard deviation of four percent. But we were more interested in the outliers, which ranged from two to 20. We asked the people who submitted the lowest and highest numbers to reveal themselves and state their case for the extreme ends of investment.
We didn’t tell people in advance that we would put them on the spot, but the outliers immediately and voluntarily spoke up. It’s easy to assume that the uninhibited response was because people in professional services are used to stating and defending their points of view. But we’ve seen similarly quick responses in other industry contexts. The key is to make clear that the goal isn’t to make a decision (that comes later), but to surface and share misalignment. That creates what Harvard Business School Professor Amy Edmondson dubs “psychological safety,” an understanding within a team that it’s safe to take a risky stance – a critical enabler of productive disagreement.
The discussion helped to identify the assumptions on which the low investment and high investment leaders agreed (such as the fact that new technologies would ultimately impact the company’s business model), and, most critically, where they didn’t (such as the pace and scale at which those technologies would advance, and the willingness of the company’s shareholding partners to invest in growth). Focusing only on the average score would have obscured these differences, leading those at both extremes feeling disconnected from the apparent consensus – and reinforcing the false perception that everyone was on the same page.
Surfacing the contentious assumptions clarified what we needed to study more thoroughly before making an investment plan to build the professional services firm of the future. It also highlighted the importance of identifying “strategic signposts” – developments such as technological breakthroughs, changes in customer behavior, or competitive moves – that signaled the need to accelerate or slow down the response. The team ultimately decided to make a significant investment, but one that was about 75 percent of the average of the real-time poll. The commitment stuck as everyone’s voice was heard and assumptions that might have otherwise been unstated, such as those about partners’ response, were raised and addressed.
Surfacing misalignments won’t magically make them go away. It’s critical to also make sure you then discover why they exist, and then build a consensus. As you build that consensus, consider using some of the novel alignment techniques, such as physical exercises, that we described in our recent Harvard Business Review article “Unite Your Senior Team.”
Taking the time to see where everyone stands is the first step to getting everyone to truly stand together.