Do we *need* to disagree? Or rather acknowledge our different perspectives?


The thirst for new ideas is a beautiful thing!

In the process of unearthing new ideas, though, we sometimes lose the plot a bit.

One of the (relatively) recent sources of innovations is to look into failures and celebrating failures through failure fairs and the likes etc. Great idea indeed if you pitch this well – although I seem to recall from the excellent Leaders in learning podcast series some dissonant experiences on fail fairs too, along the lines of ‘you need to set them up well’ etc. or they amount to a contest of platitudes. But granted: there is something interesting about failing.

The point, however, is that: it’s not about the failing, it’s about the learning. Failing as such is not great. But the learning that comes from failing can be extremely powerful.

Ditto with disagreements.

I recently read the latest newsletter of the ever excellent David Gurteen knowledge letter. And one of the links grabbed my attention:

Episode 1, How to Disagree: A Beginner’s Guide to Having Better Arguments – BBC Radio 4 https://buff.ly/2wfGR3a #ConversationalLeadership

I went on to check the link – and listen to all five episodes of this podcast. Over the series, the author really made her point more clearly and convincingly that disagreements (like failures) can be a rich source of insights and ideas.

But when I stumbled upon the link first, and the first episode of the series, I couldn’t help but feel awkward at the thought of disagreements.

409 - Conflict (Credits: GirlieMac)

When disagreement degenerates into conflict (Credits: GirlieMac)

Disagreements are not the end goal.

What is the end goal, for collaboration etc. to work, is for people to disclose their opinion, their true identity, their feelings, their half-baked ideas, and to struggle through the process to also understand each other and progressively emerge with shared meaning (something which, incidentally, the same David Gurteen recently covered in his blook ‘Conversational leadership’).

Disagreement is, at best, an abrasive way of bringing some good ideas to the fore. But in terms of group development it’s far from being a panacea.

  • Don’t most disagreements end up rather sharpening our arguments than our ideas?
  • Does an argument bring the best feelings to the foreground?
  • Is it the most effective technique (so, purely from a technical point of view) to help the entire group find constructive ways to collaborate, in the longer run?
  • Does disagreement help build confidence among group members, and does it contribute to a group ‘gelling’? In and of itself?

I’m not so sure.

In fact, I’m pretty sure that disagreement is a) unavoidable, b) potentially extremely useful, c) potentially really destructive too and d) best facilitated, so that it remains a disagreement only for ever so long as it needs, and it helps move towards a renewed understanding of views and positions again – a prelude to constructive group co-creation and group (collaboration) development.

Disagreement is not the goal. It’s one of the ugly ‘necessary evils’ in a group’s life, every now and then. But it’s not the holy grail, the end destination.

Don’t let your thirst for new, sexy ideas distract you from the longer game.

And don’t you dare disagreeing with me grrrrr ;p

Check the BBC series ‘How to Disagree: A Beginner’s Guide to Having Better Arguments

Sunbeam disagreement (Credits: Jon Hritz)

Sunbeam disagreement (Credits: Jon Hritz)

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The death of nice communities of practice?


Greeks always argue about facts (Credits: papazimouris / FlickR)

Argument, oiling in respect among friends… but beyond? (Credits: papazimouris / FlickR)

An interesting conversation is happening in KM4Dev – when is it not the case? – in relation with Dave Snowden‘s recent inputs to the conference on ‘Knowledge for Development (#DIEK4D see https://tagboard.com/diek4d) and his reflections on this post (full meeting wiki notes are available here).

Oh and close down those communities of practice which are now so hide bound as to be only of use to the avid naval-gazers.  We need more disagreement, more passion, more argument, more engagement which is not conditional on not upsetting people. (Dave Snowden, reflections on #DIEK4D, 9 July 2014)

Two interesting take-homes from this:

a) Let CoPs die!

b) Nice is the new poison

Interesting and provocative statements of course – just wanted to rebound on these, but I highly encourage you to see all strings from that conversation on the KM4Dev mailing list here (link possibly requiring log-in credentials).

Ad a) Let CoPs die!

Not getting Involved (Credits: Tarik B / FlickR)

Communities of practice, between agreement, argument and indifference? (Credits: Tarik B / FlickR)

Communities of practice (CoPs) won’t die just now. Even though it seems many of them are not doing well.

The problem is rather the proliferation of these CoPs, and the fact that many of these CoPs might have been set up and labelled from the onset as ‘CoPs’ although they were just groups of invited people in a top-down manner. CoPs need their time to develop over time. The case of KM4Dev is testimony to that slow simmering process.

The proliferation of guidelines for how to set up and use CoPs (just see some of my personal bookmarks on CoPs) seems a fair indication that there is a lot of bad practice going on and that CoPs take time to grow to a mature level. So the problem is not so much with all those navel-gazing CoPs but rather all those that are steered by a navel-gazing base of narrow-minded people setting up the CoP without budging away from their original thinking, and probably inviting people that are too much alike.

The paradox is that even if it’s not forever and even if it’s not in a real community of practice, having a space for people to question their practice can be a really helpful thing – it just takes a lot of time to develop into a real community of practice that generates the critical mass required to make way for constructive disagreement… And it leads thus naturally to point b)

Ad b) Nice is the new poison

That argument really is an interesting one, as it seems to denote a trend that happens at some point to a lot of people studying (and ‘doing’) work on collaboration. The Wageningen UR teams who theorised multi-stakeholder processes have also progressively shifted their interest away from the positive aspects of cooperation to the conflicts and negotiation of these conflicts around setting a collective agenda.

I think the issue here is rather about the conditions of establishing a space for learning and decision-making. Learning is very much steered by the conjunction of ideas coming from people with very different walks of life. Allowing that diversity to flourish means that the people in that space need to be open to wildly different ideas, listen to all and make something of that. And the decision-making process in those spaces should cherish that diversity and not kill any deviation from an ‘orthodox practice’.

This can mean allowing disagreement to revisit the foundations of work as we know it. That is deeply disruptive. And itchy. Not pleasant to most people, and thus the reason why disagreement is somehow snuffed in the bud in some spaces. Now, while I see how sterile conversations can be if everyone agrees to everything, I’ve always been an advocate of the ‘Yes and‘ principle of improvisation theatre, which is not about disagreeing but building upon each other in a creative way.

Every conversation has its dynamics, they need not be all about agreeing, neither about disagreeing… It is all about the space that you entertain and the negotiated outcomes that a group seeks at a given time. And it’s all dynamic, so agreeing to keeping an eye on the diversity of views and possible disagreements is an essential part of the process. Some of the key questions are thus perhaps:

  • To what extent are you paying attention to diversity, curiosity over establishment and creative disruption in your collective learning space?
  • What tells you that a space has become stale? What are the early signs that something needs to be done or that space needs to disappear – or that it needs to go through a massive disruption process?
  • Who are you actually to say that this or that space is not helpful and should disappear, if it allows others to find their own space for personal development? What is your mandate and your stake in that decision?

    The Purpose of Argument (Credits: Imnotquitejack / FlickR)

    The Purpose of Argument (Credits: Imnotquitejack / FlickR)

Oh, an are you gonna say something about your silence these past few weeks? On another note, I’m coming to terms with some of the feedback – that I invited and – that I received a while back: This blog is indeed probably not the #1 most innovative of all blogs around. Yet it is my blog and that blog reflects who I am. I may not be Harold Jarche, but I think I do have some innovative ideas…Yet whether that’s true or not, I can’t really pretend to be someone else, so I reckon it will keep on reacting on the signals that I find interesting, because this is my mode of processing a lot of that information, and actually innovation happens at the edge, in transforming and combining bits of information such as these… that does not prevent me from taking into account a lot of the other comments I received. But I prefer to keep blogging with my limitations rather than be stopped by the blank page syndrome because I should be someone else…

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