A Playbook for Disagree and Commit

Decision making at scale and without casualties

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Photo by Frank Busch on Unsplash

Have you ever experienced any of the the following?

  • Decisions are made by whoever has the most important job title in the room

If you answered yes to any of those then this article is for you. You’ll have come across the term disagree and commit and probably heard it misused. Disagree and commit doesn’t mean “stop disagreeing with me”. Or even in the worst instance “I commit to disagreeing with you when I’m proven right”. It means that everyone has agreed to proceed with a particular course of action even if it is not the one they would have chosen originally.

It’s worth understanding how large scale misalignments come about. As companies grow it becomes probable that any significant decision will affect a large number of people with vested interests. You get multiple people who are used to being the decision maker who are unable to agree or people from different disciplines (eg. engineering, privacy, product..) with different priorities. This is not a problem in and of itself — but the way we go about tackling it often becomes problematic. To resolve this you have a choice of either:

  • Agreeing to disagree. This only works when the decision affects a small number of people. Choose your battles — if the impact on what you’re doing is small then it may not be worth conflict. If the impact is large or people are working at cross purposes then they may wind up spending more time in each other’s way (or worst case undoing each other’s work) than getting things done. This strategy only works for very minor misalignments.

The cost of all the approaches listed above, except the last one, are wanton expenditure of time on energy on things that bring no value and broken human relationships. So how do we go about doing it constructively?

Know when to escalate
You disagree with a decision or course of action and would like resolution. The decision or course of action has a large impact on either your work or the business. You have attempted to resolve with the other party (or parties) and cannot come to agreement. At this point it’s healthy to agree that you need assistance in resolving your disagreement and that you need to escalate together. It’s also worth noting that this is for exceptional circumstances — if you escalate everything then there’s something very wrong in your world.

Know whom to escalate to
Part of escalating together is coming to agreement on the decision maker for this escalation. Agreeing who is the arbiter is the first step. A good rule of thumb here is go to the least senior common ancestor in your combined organisation chart (this may be the CEO at the very worst case). You can also agree a respected peer who can mediate and make the decision.

Follow these guidelines

  • First seek to understand the other person’s point of view. A little empathy can go a long way in preventing the escalation happening. A colleague used to get two people in disagreement to argue each other’s cases. The best escalation is one which doesn’t happen because people and come to consensus together and empathy is your most powerful tool here.

Notes for decision makers
If you are the decision maker here are some things you need to avoid doing:

  • Don’t tolerate back channels and one-sided escalations. If people come to you individually suggest they should escalate together (share this guide, point them at DACI). Your job is to be trusted and neutral.

The myth of consensus
It would be great to live in a world where everyone agrees on every decision. If would be great if we lived in a world where people had strong opinions that were loosely held. The reality is the more people are involved in a decision the more likely it is that people will have strongly held contrary opinions. Not making a decision leads to consequences which are undesirable and far worse than deferring or remaining in conflict. Relationships where disagreements are resolved quickly and without drama are enjoyable and productive. Making high quality high speed decisions inclusively and transparently is how you continue to focus on the things which really matter — solving your users’ and each others’ problems.

Written by

Ex-Google, ex-Netscape, ex-Skyscanner. Interested in solving complex problems without complexity and self sustaining self improving organisations.

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