Disagree & Commit.

I first came across the idea of “Disagree and Commit” when I read a book called The Amazon Way by John Rossman.

However, I had spent many years seeing the outcomes of not putting this idea into practice in countless organizations. My experience of working in consulting and professional services for close to a decade left me with a jaded idea of how bad decision-making can be in large organizations.

I thought that there was no way that a large organization can make efficient decisions, and as more and more stakeholders jump into a specific project, the longer that decision would take, and often the worse that they would be.

In contrast, I worked with certain startups, as well as having my own Software-as-a-Service startup, and noticed how effortless the decision-making process seemed to be. I also worked on personal projects, where the decision-making was the simplest of them all — it was only me.

The key difference that I identified was what I call the “Disagree and Commit” principle.

What is Disagree and Commit?

The “Disagree and Commit” principle is simply this: If you don’t agree with a decision, commit to it anyways.

At first glance, this may seem like a recipe for disaster. However, upon further inspection, you will realize that this is actually the best way to make decisions in a large organization. It is a principle that is widely practiced at Amazon, and it has led to their incredible success.

There are three main reasons why the “Disagree and Commit” principle works so well:

1) It eliminates the need for consensus.

2) It allows for dissenting opinions to be heard.

3) It builds trust.

Let’s go over these.

1) It eliminates the need for consensus.

The “Disagree and Commit” principle eliminates the need for consensus because it allows for dissenting opinions to be heard, but not necessarily agreed with. This is important because in a large organization, it is impossible to please everyone, and attempting to do so will only lead to stagnation.

2) It allows for dissenting opinions to be heard.

The “Disagree and Commit” principle allows for dissenting opinions to be heard because it recognizes that not everyone will agree with every decision that is made. However, it also recognizes that it is important to move forward with a decision, even if not everyone agrees.

3) It builds trust.

The “Disagree and Commit” principle builds trust because it shows that you are willing to listen to dissenting opinions, but ultimately make the decision that you feel is best for the organization. This builds trust because it shows that you are not afraid to make tough decisions, even if they are not popular.

Without realizing it, I was craving for a framework, a principle, and an idea that would help unblock this common problem and impasse. After all, some things can only be done by large organizations because of the scale required, and so if you want to do some interesting things, you need to be capable of working with large groups of people.

I had previously begun to understand the concept that there are two distinct types of decisions that can be made, and I have written about this previously. The key insight here is that one needs to understand if a decision is reversible or not. If it is, you can make it with a lot less evidence and conviction — you can optimize for speed vs ensuring you are always right.

If it is not reversible, then you need to take your time and have a higher level of understanding, and often dig into the data more than you normally would. In fact, you may want to add purposeful blockers to fast decision-making processes when the decision is not reversible.

Many decisions are reversible, two-way doors. Those decisions can use a light-weight process. Most decisions should probably be made with somewhere around 70 percent of the information you wish you had. [So] 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?” [If I disagree], it’s not me thinking to myself, ‘Well, these guys are wrong and missing the point, but this isn’t worth me chasing.” It’s a genuine disagreement of opinion, a candid expression of my view, a chance for the team to weigh my view, and a quick, sincere commitment to go their way.

Jeff Bezos

So in today’s essay, I want to go into a lot of detail about the idea of Disagree and Committing to a decision, both from the side of pitching the idea that others need to disagree and commit to, as well as from being the person who needs disagrees and yet still needs to commit and move forward with the implementation.

It is actually quite a difficult idea to wrap our heads around because it can cause a certain degree of cognitive dissonance because, in typical organizational management, one expects to have to “win over” the hearts and minds of the people that report to you to ensure that everyone is aligned before moving forwards.

Instead, with this approach, we acknowledge that there are multiple valid ways forwards, and someone with decision-making power makes what, from the point of view of other people, can be an arbitrary decision that everyone else has to follow.

This does require a type of second-order thinking that Ray Dalio discusses in his book “Principles” where you look at yourself as both the strategist and the soldier.

You stand on top of yourself and review the system that you yourself are part of, and make decisions from that point of view, in addition to being “in” the workings of the system. This gives you the advantage of being able to detach yourself emotionally and to be able to see the proverbial forest from the trees.

So, let’s flesh out our definition:

Disagree and commit is a management principle that 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.

Essentially, this principle is about when it is useful to have conflict and disagreement and when it is not. Teams and organizations need to move forward toward objectives and results. They cannot second-guess themselves forever, and yet there is no environment where you will have one hundred percent certainty.

There will always be risk and uncertainty, and so you need to find a balance. And that is what this principle is about — it is about finding the sweet spot in decision-making where you have enough information to make a decision that you can commit to, even though others might disagree.

There are two main situations where you would want to use the disagree and commit principle:

  1. When there is a clear decision to be made, and you need to move forward quickly
  2. When there is not a clear decision to be made, but you need to move forward anyway. The risk of inaction is greater than the risk of being wrong.

In the first situation, you might be in a meeting where there is vigorous debate about what the next steps should be. And yet, at the end of the day, someone needs to make a decision so that the team can move forward. In this case, it might be useful to say something like, “I know we disagree on this, but will you gamble with me on this decision?”

This type of statement acknowledges the disagreement while also putting a stake in the ground and committed to moving forward. It also sets up an important principle that we will discuss later, which is that you need to be willing to change your mind if you are proven wrong.

The second situation is one where there is not a clear decision to be made, but inaction is not an option. In this case, you might need to say something like, “I don’t know what the right answer is, but we need to do something. I am going to make a decision, and I am committed to being open-minded and changing my mind if it turns out that I am wrong.” This is almost like the scientific method, where scientists will always revisit old established theories when new information comes in that makes them obsolete.

The key to both of these situations is that you need to be willing to change your mind if you are wrong. This is what it means to commit to a decision. You are not married to the decision, but you are committed to it in the sense that you will revisit it and change it if necessary.

Avoiding the Consensus Traps.

Waiting for everyone in a team to reach a consensus runs the risk of running into various concuss traps:

  • Lack of inaction
  • Mediocre Decision Making.
  • Silent Disagreement.

The first problem with waiting to reach a perfect consensus is that this can radically slow down decision-making. They say that if you want to kill a good initiative, have a committee run it. It is not a surprise that there are dozens of rather humorous quotations that can be found about committees.

Committee–a group of men who keep minutes and waste hours.

Milton Berle

I’ve searched all the parks in all the cities and found no statues of committees.

G. K. Chesterton

Committee: A group of the unwilling, picked from the unfit to do the unnecessary.

Richard Harkness

A committee is a thing which takes a week to do what one good man can do in an hour.

Elbert Hubbard

The ideal committee is one with me as the chairman, and two other members in bed with the flu.

Lord Milverton

I have come to the conclusion that a committee is a group of the unwilling, drawn from the unfit, to do the unnecessary.

Frederick Brooks Jr.

All of these quotations make a similar point: committees are generally inefficient and oftentimes counterproductive. This is because they tend to move slowly and reach mediocre decisions.

Another problem with consensus decision-making is that it can lead to silent disagreement. Just because someone agrees to a decision does not mean that they actually agree with it. They might just be going along with the majority because they feel like they have to.

This can lead to all sorts of problems down the road when people are not actually committed to the decisions that are made. It is much better to get

I’ve experienced this in projects at the highest level and even when committees were quite hard working. Often committees are no longer called committees due to the negative connotations of lack of efficiencies, but they are often called “working groups”.

The issue is that if seven people sit in a working group three times per week for an hour, it can seem like a lot is being done, but actually, that’s 63 hours of work that is not being done, all for the sake of ensuring alignment and that everyone agrees before moving forwards with any particular decision.

The issue is that not only decision are slow, but also that they are often inconsequential, which takes us to the second point that if you want to get consensus, you will make mediocre decisions.

This can be further split into sub-problems.

  • You either make decisions that are a compromise of all potential promising ideas
  • Or, the decision that you do make are not particularly important.

This gives a final way forward that makes no one particularly happy, but it makes no one particularly angry.

This is a problem because good decisions are often polarizing. In fact, I often see the total agreement as a red flag! Why is nobody thinking that this is a bad idea, are we not being radical enough? Could we do more? And so on…

I really like this quote by Alfred Sloan at a board meeting of General Motors, which at the time (the 1930s) was the world’s largest company.

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 Sloan.

He realized that when everyone agreed, it was often because they had not thought about the proposal deeply enough. By postponing the decision, people had time to think about it and develop a more nuanced opinion.

Of course, this is not to say that you should never strive for consensus, but rather that you should be aware of its potential drawbacks and use it judiciously.

We’ll talk at length about the second sub-problem later, that of inconsequential decisions, because this happens so often that it requires a complete section to itself.

The third issue with trying to get consensus is that, depending on the culture of the team and organization, you may not even be getting the consensus that you think you are getting. The room may be full of people who disagree but, for some reason or other, do not want to speak out.

I covered this phenomenon at length in my essay “The Bus to Abilene“, but it is worth reiterating here:

This is when a group makes a collective decision that is counter to the preference of most or all of the individuals that make up the group.

It is generally caused by a lack of group communication, where individuals feel their preference goes against the will of the majority, and so they do not raise any objections. Sometimes, they may even fake support for a decision they do not really want. This can be especially true for junior members in a group that includes more senior individuals in terms of age or hierarchy.

This paradox was discovered by Jerry B. Harvey, a management expert who wrote an article in 1974 called “The Abilene Paradox: The Management of Agreement”.

Harvey gives a simple anecdote to explain the paradox:

On a hot afternoon visiting in Coleman, Texas, the family is comfortably playing dominoes on a porch, until the father-in-law suggests that they take a 50-mile (80-km)] trip to [Abilene for dinner. The wife says, “Sounds like a great idea.” The husband, despite having reservations because the drive is long and hot, thinks that his preferences must be out-of-step with the group and says, “Sounds good to me. I just hope your mother wants to go.” The mother-in-law then says, “Of course I want to go. I haven’t been to Abilene in a long time.”

The drive is hot, dusty, and long. When they arrive at the cafeteria, the food is as bad as the drive. They arrive back home four hours later, exhausted.

One of them dishonestly says, “It was a great trip, wasn’t it?” The mother-in-law says that, actually, she would rather have stayed home, but went along since the other three were so enthusiastic. The husband says, “I wasn’t delighted to be doing what we were doing. I only went to satisfy the rest of you.” The wife says, “I just went along to keep you happy. I would have had to be crazy to want to go out in the heat like that.” The father-in-law then says that he only suggested it because he thought the others might be bored.

The group sits back, perplexed that they together decided to take a trip that none of them wanted. They each would have preferred to sit comfortably but did not admit to it when they still had time to enjoy the afternoon.

The Abilene Paradox is often used to explain why groups make sub-optimal decisions, even when it is clear that individual members of the group do not want to go along with the decision.

It can happen in organizations when people feel pressure to conform to the majority opinion, even when they disagree with it. This can lead to a situation where the organization ends up making decisions that are not in line with the preferences of the majority of its members.

To avoid this, it is important to create an environment where people feel comfortable expressing dissenting opinions. This can be done by encouraging open discussion and debate and by ensuring that all voices are heard. It is also important to make sure that everyone understands the decision-making process so

How to Disagree and Commit

The first step in disagreeing and committing is recognizing that not everyone will agree with every decision that is made. This is perfectly normal and should be expected.

The second step is to have a discussion about the dissenting opinion. It is important to listen to the reasoning behind the opinion and to try to understand where the other person is coming from.

The third step is to make a decision. This decision should be based on what you feel is best for the organization, not necessarily what everyone agrees with.

The fourth step is to commit to the decision. This means that even if you disagree with the decision, you will support it and work towards its success.

The fifth step is to follow through on your commitment. This means that you will continue to support the decision even if it does not turn out the way you hoped.

The “Disagree and Commit” a principle is a powerful tool that can help organizations make better decisions. However, it is important to remember that it is not a panacea, and there will still be times when consensus is necessary. But, in general, the “Disagree and Commit” principle is the best way to make decisions in a large organization.

Complaining is not a Strategy.

So if you don’t wait (or want to wait) for consensus, then you need to have a clear way to move forwards still, regardless.

The worst possible outcome is that a decision is made, and then complaining becomes the strategy for the people who do not agree, and then this creates a drag on the execution of the decision.

The “Disagree and Commit” principle helps to avoid this by giving people a way to move on from their disagreement and still commit to supporting the decision.

It is important to remember that even if you disagree with the decision, you should still support it and work towards its success. This doesn’t mean that you can’t continue to voice your opinion, but it does mean that you should not let your disagreement become a barrier to progress.

If you find yourself in the shoes of someone who is disagreeing with a decision but have been asked to agree and commit fully to it, this is where that second-order thinking really comes into play.

You need to think about what is the best thing for the company or organization as a whole, not just what is best for you or your team.

It can be difficult to do this, but it is important to remember that the decisions made by an organization are not always going to be perfect and that disagreement is a normal part of the decision-making process. It’s not a personal attack or a moral failure to not agree — it is a sign that difficult subjects are being openly discussed!

If you step back from yourself, you can view the entire situation as a type of scientific experiment. You should try even harder to implement a decision that you do not agree with because then one of two things will happen:

  • Things go well — so perhaps you were wrong to disagree with it. This is a great learning opportunity to review your notes about the decision before it was made, why you thought that the final way forward was incorrect, and why things worked out just fine in the end. How can you improve your thinking next time?
  • Things go wrong — you tried your hardest, and there was nothing wrong with the execution, and so you now know for sure that you were correct in not thinking that this was the right decision in the first place. But, at least you didn’t sabotage the execution side of things by not fully committing to the execution of the decision, and thus never really knowing if the problem was the decision that was made or your bad attempt at implementation.

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.

This requires a significant amount of maturity, but I hope that if you’re reading this, you’re the type of person that can implement such type of second-order thinking.

If you are the person making the decision, then this is something that you can try to explain to the others on the team about how to view the decision that you are making.

So if you don’t like a decision, the next best thing to do is to try to come up with a better plan. If you can’t come up with a better plan, then you need to support the plan that was decided on and make sure it succeeds.

Complaining is not a strategy.

And vs But.

There is a subtle difference in attitude about how one can commit to an idea.

You can disagree and commit — this signals action, movement, and acceptance. You’re going to be moving forwards with the decision as if it was your very own decision.

Or, you can disagree but commit. This shows hesitation, skepticism, and a general lack of trust in the decision-maker. It signals that you’ll be dragging your feet the whole way, and someone else is going to have to carry the implementation to a final conclusion.

Your job is not to always agree with the decision but to make the decision successful

And there is also a strategy about how often to disagree with decisions as well, especially based on how consequential they may be. For instance, if you generally don’t speak up and disagree, you’ll find that your team members will take more notice of when you do because it means that this rare occurrence is more special. This gives you the upper edge vs being the constant contrarian that be discounted because you are always disagreeing with whatever idea or decision is put on the table.

There is a time to speak up and a time to stay quiet. Choose your battles wisely.

The Bike Shed Effect.

I mentioned earlier the problem with inconsequential decision-making, and this is actually a very large problem, especially in committees and any situation where sizable groups are making decisions.

Instead of focussing on the important problems and decisions which are difficult to understand, a significant amount of time is spent on the less important but easier-to-grasp decisions.

So it is the tendency for people to give disproportionate weight to trivial or minor issues.

This often happens in organizations where people are more concerned with the details of an issue than its actual importance. The term was first coined by British mathematician and physicist C. Northcote Parkinson in his 1955 book Parkinson’s Law and has been popularized by other authors such as Dilbert creator Scott Adams.

The reason why it is sometimes called the bike-shed effect is that Parkinson gives an example of a committee’s deliberations on an atomic reactor, contrasting it to deliberations on a bicycle shed. As he put it: “The time spent on any item of the agenda will be in inverse proportion to the sum of money involved.” A reactor is so vastly expensive and complicated that an average person cannot understand it, so one assumes that those who work on it understand it.

However, everyone can visualize a cheap, simple bicycle shed, so planning one can result in endless discussions because everyone involved wants to implement their own proposal and demonstrate personal contribution.

After a suggestion of building something new for the community, like a bike shed, problems arise when everyone involved argues about the details. This is a metaphor indicating that it is not necessary to argue about every little feature based simply on having the knowledge to do so. Some people have commented that the amount of noise generated by a change is inversely proportional to the complexity of the change.

In some ways, this is similar to the sunk cost fallacy in that both involve people making decisions based on irrelevant information.

The best way to avoid being affected by the Law of Triviality is to focus on the big picture and not get bogged down in the details. It is also important to remember that not all decisions need to be made by a committee – sometimes, it is better to delegate responsibility to a single individual.

The key thing to remember is that different points of view are important. This is how we get to the best decisions, by discussion and by understanding the field of available options in front of us. Having a room full of parrots that just nod in synchronicity helps nobody.

But, this must be counterbalanced by the fact that we cannot disagree forever. So, commit to ideas that you disagree with, and then save the strongest disagreements for the most important decisions, so you’ll have more of an impact.

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