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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Research, KM and multi-stakeholder processes: cross interview with Cees Leeuwis and Mark Lundy


Cees Leeuwis (Credits: C.  Bilonda / E. Le Borgne)

Cees Leeuwis (Credits: C. Bilonda / E. Le Borgne)

Last week, I had the privilege of sitting with two people I’ve been following with interest over the past few years:

  • Cees Leeuwis, Professor of Communication and Innovation Studies at Wageningen University and a lead thinker on multi-stakeholder processes and social learning processes involving research.
  • Mark Lundy, senior researcher at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) and one of the forefront CGIAR thinkers and leaders on multi-stakeholder processes such as learning alliances (which later inspired my former employer IRC International Water and Sanitation Centre to a.o. develop this publication).
Mark Lundy (Credits: C.  Bilonda / E. Le Borgne)

Mark Lundy (Credits: C. Bilonda / E. Le Borgne)

They kindly accepted to answer a couple of questions about their current sources of (research) interest, knowledge management and multi-stakeholder processes.

What are you currently working on or interested in?

(Cees) I’m interested in so many things! The overarching theme in my work is around the relationships between technology and society, looking at innovation; it is about saying that innovation is more than technology alone, that it combines hard- soft- and org-ware and about thinking through the implications of that combination. This focus is very important and helps us explain why a lot of things go well or wrong and to rethink the role of science in the innovation process, how one can stimulate, organize and contribute to innovation.

(Mark) Two major things: (a) business models for sustainable trading relationships between small farmers and buyers (see: http://ciat-library.ciat.cgiar.org:8080/jspui/bitstream/123456789/6593/1/LINK_Methodology.pdf); and, (b) Research in development platforms building on CIAT’s experience with Learning Alliances and Innovation Platforms. I find these two topics fascinating and would happily give up my role in other programs I’m involved to dedicate myself to them.

What role do you see for knowledge management (if any) in the work you are doing and more broadly?

(Cees) KM is a problematic term. My real work on KM is related to how to embed research in society. I think that should be the role of KM: to help make people wait for research before it’s even finished. The idea is that you manage the production of research in such a way that there is some guarantee that people are waiting for it.

(Mark) KM is critical for nearly everything we do. My personal focus is on KM in the form of feedback loops for improved decision-making in business models and KM at the level of Research in Development platforms. I also see a critical role in regards to policy incidence which, historically, has not been the forte of the CGIAR.

Where do you see research on social learning and multi-actor initiatives go in the coming years?

(Cees) I think there will be more attention the dynamics of tension and conflict in these kinds of processes and the implications this has for facilitating such processes. In the end, change is about altering the status quo and usually many stakeholders are not very interested in that. And at the same time there may be competing initiatives for change. So tension and conflict are inherent to multi-actor initiatives, and I think we need to get better at dealing with this. There is a lot we can learn from studies in conflict management!

(Mark) From a CGIAR perspective, these topics need to be recognized as legitimate research topics in their own right. The CG can do brilliant upstream research but if we don’t find ways to effectively connect this to development demand in ways that add value to both research and development we will have negligible impact.

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