Great teams avoid the consensus trap by embracing a concept that Intel, the legendary microchip manufactured calls “disagree and commit”. Basically they believe that even when people can’t come to an agreement around an issue, they must still leave the room unambiguously committed to a common course of action.
At the time, I had a hard time with this concept. Part of it was the stage I was at in my own leadership journey, but in retrospect, I also think that part of it was because I had a hard time seeing how I can be in integrity with myself when asked to go along and support a course of action that I disagree with.
Lencioni brought up “disagree & commit” in the context of healthy conflict:
It’s only when colleagues speak up and put their opinions on the table, without holding back, that the leader can confidently fulfill one of his most important responsibilities: breaking ties.
The arc that he draws is: team can’t reach consensus → has a healthy conflict where everyone advocates for their point of view → leader breaks tie and makes a decision → everyone disagrees and commits.
Most decisions should probably be made with somewhere around 70% of the information you wish you had. If you wait for 90%, in most cases, you’re probably being slow… 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?” By the time you’re at this point, no one can know the answer for sure, and you’ll probably get a quick yes… This isn’t one way. If you’re the boss, you should do this too. I disagree and commit all the time.
Bezos’ framing drove two major breakthroughs for me:
- It resolved the integrity paradox — you can commit to a course of action that you disagree with and maintain your integrity in situations where the disagreement stems from the unknown. The disagreement is not about the facts, it’s about what might happen — the 30% of information that we don’t have. Both sides are making educated bets, but either bet can turn out to be true.
- It offered a more powerful way to handle decision-making — not just avoiding the need for consensus, but also avoiding situations in which the “highest paid person’s opinion” (HiPPO) always wins. Even in situations when the “highest paid person” is not explicitly acting as a tie-breaker, the intensity of her opinion is often times amplified when interpreted by others: a reaction is interpreted as an objection, a stake becomes a boulder, a boulder becomes a tombstone. The highest paid person deciding to “disagree & commit” sends an incredibly strong and empowering message to the rest of the team.