Disagree & Commit

I first came across the concept of “disagree & commit” in Patrick Lencioni’s books “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” and “The Advantage”, though he credits its origin to Intel:

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.

Interestingly, Jeff Bezos brought this concept up again in a different context in his 2016 letter to shareholders (emphasis is mine):

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
Disagree & Commit

Feedback: Staying on your side of the net

A few weekends ago, I participated in a weekend-long T-Group. It is the second most impactful personal growth experience I’ve had over the past year (the first was a 10-day Vipassana retreat). This post covers one of the concepts that really stuck with me.

“Staying on your side of the net” or “avoid crossing the net” was coined by Bradford and Huckabay:

Most of us act like amateur psychologists in that we try to figure out why others act as they do. If you interrupt me (a behavior) and I feel annoyed (the effect on me), I try and understand why you would do that. So I make an attribution of your motives (it must be that you are inconsiderate)…

As common as this attribution process is, it also can be dysfunctional. Note that my sense-making is a guess. That is my hunch as to why you act the way you do. I am “crossing over the net” from what is my area of expertise (that I am annoyed at your behavior), to your area of expertise (your motives and intentions). My imputation of your motives can always be debated, (“You don’t listen.” “Yes, I do.” “No you don’t.”) whereas sticking with my own feelings and reactions is never debatable. ( “I felt irritated by your interruption just now.” “You shouldn’t feel that way because I didn’t mean to interrupt you.” “Perhaps not, but I feel irritated nonetheless.” )

Dave Kashen offered some really good examples of “crossing the net” and “staying on your side of the net” around the following scenario:

You notice that a team member who used to come in at 9:00am and leave at 8:00pm has started coming in at 10:00am and leaving by 7:00pm.

Crossing the net:

  • Stating your interpretations as facts: “You just don’t care anymore.”
  • Stating their intentions: “You’re trying to get on my nerves.”
  • Stating their feelings: “You’re frustrated about this project.”
  • Stating their observations: “You obviously realize you’re the only one leaving before 8pm.”

Staying on your side of the net: 

  • Stating your thoughts as thoughts (not facts): “I’ve noticed you’ve been coming in later and leaving earlier, and it makes me wonder if you’re less engaged.”
  • Expressing your own feelings: “I’m frustrated that you’ve been coming in later and leaving earlier, and worried about your level of engagement.”
  • Stating your intentions: “I’d like to make sure you’re fully engaged.”
  • Directly stating your observations: “I’ve noticed that you used to come in at 9:00am and leave at 8:00pm, and lately you’ve been coming in at 10:00am and leaving at 7:00pm.”

Interestingly, this was not a new concept to me. I came across it in Non-Violent Communications and the I-message structure. But something in the visual metaphor really helped things “click” for me in a deeper, more profound way. The metaphor seems to act as a visual mnemonic, helping me retain the concept better.

Feedback: Staying on your side of the net

Personal Agency

In recent years I’m learning to appreciate the critical role that personal agency plays in my personal values system. And I strongly believe that a deep sense of personal agency is a critical ingredient in any type of healthy collaborative effort, be it a personal relationship or the company you are working for. You can only have a healthy collaboration if the collaborators acknowledge their own agency in managing the health of the collaboration. But sadly, often times that’s not the case.

My own sense of personal agency was developed not under the best of circumstances, most likely as a coping mechanism for dealing with late childhood / early adolescent experiences. Today, I view it as a great source of strength, but it does have its shadow side. Just recently I learned to appreciate that I often find behaviors that demonstrate lack of personal agency as somewhat triggering.

Wikipedia defines a “sense of agency” as:

The subjective awareness of initiating, executing, and controlling one’s own volitional actions in the world. It is the pre-reflective awareness or implicit sense that it is I who is executing bodily movement(s) or thinking thoughts.

I tend to understand a term better by looking at its opposite. And we can best do that by connecting personal agency to a slightly more academic term, coined by the renowned psychologist Julian Rotter, called “Locus of Control”, explained in this lovely illustration:

Or by this more complicated table:

So a slightly more academic way to explain personal agency is to describe is as a strong internal locus of control.

I view helping people develop a strong sense of personal agency as one of the most powerful ways to enable people to grow and be part of healthy organizations. And I’m deeply curious about ways to achieve that.

The language we use and the organizational systems that we design, sometimes inadvertently reinforce a sense of lack-of-agency (sometimes referred to as “learned helplessness” or “victimhood”).

Another powerful lever, suggested by Steven Covey, and more recently by James Clear is focus. Covey creates an interesting distinction, between our “circle of concern” and our “circle of control” which Clear eloquently explains:

Circles of Concern are the things that you often waste time and energy worrying about, but that you have little to no control over. Meanwhile, Circles of Control are the things that you can influence in your daily life.

As an example, the vast majority of news stories — war and terrorism, the economy and stock prices, celebrity gossip and political scandal — fall squarely in the Circle of Concern. They can easily soak up your time and energy, but you have virtually no control over those events.

Other examples include getting angry about what someone posted on Facebook, worrying about what other people think about you, or wishing your kids would make better choices (a valid wish, but still outside of your control).

Source: James Clear blog

Covey’s advice is to shift our focus from our “circle of concern” to our “circle of control”. Even on its surface, it seems that introducing this distinction can help people see the personal agency that they already have, and hopefully, over time, start growing that circle outwards.

Personal Agency

Performance of Performance Reviews [Sinofsky]

Steven Sinofsky wrote one of the most thought-provoking pieces on performance reviews that I’ve read in a while:

It’s a long, dense read, that is totally worth it. But since I’d probably want to point people that may not have the patience to read the whole thing to his main points, below is a shorter summary of his piece:

One of the key ideas in Sinofsky’s framing is captured in this great quote:

For as much as many might wish to think of performance management as numeric and thus perfectly quantifiable, it is as much a product of context and social science as the products we design and develop. We want quantitative certainty and simplicity, but context is crucial and fluid, and qualitative. We desire fair, which is a relative term, but insist on the truth, which is absolute.

No system can perfectly capture performance, but that’s not a good enough reason for not having a system at all.

5 Realities:

These are key assumptions about performance, people, and systems.

  1. Performance systems conflate performance, promotion/title, and compensation, and organizational budgets — this is a variation on the concept of functional overloading. At according the Sinofsky, the core purpose of the system is “ determining how to pay everyone within the budget”.
  2. In a group of any size there is a distribution of performance — and I’d add that it’s not normally distributed.
  3. In a system where you have m labels for performance, people who get all but the most rewarding one believe they are “so close” to the higher one — a point that I covered in detail in Flawed Self-Assessment
  4. Among any set of groups, almost all the groups think their group is delivering more and other groups are delivering less — the same pattern in #3, applies also to groups.
  5. Measurement is not absolute but is relative — performance is measured relative to a benchmark. As Sinofsky points out, there’s a big risk in measuring performance against individual goals. Personally, I prefer to measure it against a shared benchmark describing behaviors that support the long-term success of the business (aka “levels”).

10 Real World Attributes

In this section, Sinofsky highlights the common attributes that must be considered and balanced when developing a performance review system; and offers some advice on each.

However, the critical starting point is that any system will be imperfect:

While one can attempt to codify a set of rules, one cannot codify the way humans will implement the rules…

…there are so many complexities it is pointless to attempt to fully codify a system. Rather everyone just goes in with open eyes and a realistic view of the difficulty of the challenge and iterates through the variables throughout the entire dialog. Fixating on any one to the exclusion of others is when ultimately the system breaks down.

  1. Determining team size — “At some point, the system requires every level of management to honestly assess people based on a dialog of imperfect information.” → “Implement a system in groups of about 100 in seniority and role.”
  2. Conflating seniority, job function, and projects does not create a peer group — Aiming to create an apples-to-apples comparison, given the constraints → “Define peer groups based on seniority and job function within project teams as best you can.”
  3. Measuring against goals— Addressing the tension between goals and performance explain in the 5th “reality” → “Let individuals and their manager arrive at goals that foster a sense of mastery of skills and success of the project, while focusing evaluation on the relative (and qualitative) contribution to the broader mission.”
  4. Understanding cross-organization performance —This is aimed at addressing the imperfection of #2 → “Do not pit organizations against each other by competing for rewards and foster cross-group collaboration via planning and execution of shared bets.”
  5. Maintaining a system that both rates and rewards —Defining how a rating maps to compensation, Sinofsky argues that both extremes (fully/loosely correlated) are sub-optimal → “A clear rating that lets individuals know where they stand relative to their peer group along with compensation derived from that with the ability of a manager with the most intimate knowledge of the work to adjust compensation within some rating-defined range.”
  6. Writing a performance appraisal is not making a case — Aiming to manage the risk around the review’s documentation becoming the focal point of the process → “Lower the stakes for the document itself and make it clear that it is not the decision-making tool for the process.”
  7. Ranking and calibrating are different — Aiming to improve fairness when multiple-raters provide the evaluations, while avoiding false-precision that would invalidate the entire effort → “Define performance groups where members of a team fall but do not attempt to rank with more granularity or “proximity” to other groups.”
  8. Encouraging excellent teams — This is an odd one. Only by working backwards from the recommendation, I believe that the key argument here is that while organizations continue to improve over time, performance continues to vary and therefore no team or individual should be excluded from the system because they are intrinsically “great” → “Make a system that applies to everyone or have multiple systems and clear rules how membership in different systems is determined.”
  9. Allowing for exceptions creates an exception-based process — A broader generalization of #8 around the risk of adding additional exceptions → “If there is going to be a system, then stick to it and don’t encourage exceptions.”
  10. Embracing diversity in all dimensions — Another odd one. Which seems to be making the case of avoiding bias, by having a clear definition of performance and ignoring any non-performance attributes in the system → “Any strong and sustainable team will be diverse in all dimensions.”

Wrapping up, Sinofsky reminds us that:

Like so many things in business, there is no right answer or perfect approach. If there was, then there would be one performance system that everyone would use and it would work all the time. There is not.

As much as any system is maligned, having a system that is visible, has some framework, and a level of cross-organization consistency provides many benefits to the organization as a whole. These benefits accrue even with all the challenges that also exist.

And leaves us with 3 things to keep in mind:

  1. No one has all the data — “ … no one person has a complete picture of the process. This means everyone is operating with imperfect information. But it does not follow that everyone is operating imperfectly.”
  2. Share success, take responsibility — “ if you do well be sure to consider how others contributed and thank them as publicly as you can. If you think you are getting a bad deal, don’t push accountability away or point fingers, but look to yourself to make things better.”
  3. Things work out in the end — “It takes discipline and effort to work within a complex and imperfect system — this is actually one of the skills required for anyone over the course of a career. Whether it is project planning, performance management, strategic choices, management processes and more all of these are social science and all subject to context, error rates, and most importantly learning and iteration.

Whether you agree or disagree with Sinofsky’s analysis and conclusions, I don’t think anyone can argue with the boldness of the attempt to provide a holistic description of an important but imperfect solution to a core organizational challenge. Given that most of the debate around performance seems to stay at the level between rants and using the limitations of the system as a reason to have no system at all, this was a breath of fresh air.

Performance of Performance Reviews [Sinofsky]

The Decision Making Spectrum

“Deciding” is perhaps the second most important aspect of every collaboration effort, immediately after “doing”. Yet, many efforts to make a decision seem to go astray. There are many reasons leading to this outcome, but one of the most important ones, that is also very easy to fix, is lack of clarity on the decision-making process itself.

Today I want to focus on a few aspects in which additional clarity can be easily obtained: who is making the decision? and how is the rest of the group will be involved?

I’ve been iterating on this simple spectrum over the past several months and while it’s not unique in any way, shape, or form — I found it to be particularly helpful in driving clarity around these two aspects:

The spectrum spans from more authoritative decision-making modes, to more collaborative decision making modes. The left-hand side includes several modes in which there is still a single decision maker, where the right-hand side includes several modes in which the group is making the decision.

Clarifying which mode will be used in making a certain decision goes a long way in providing the clarity needed for a smoother decision making process. 

  • Full own/delegate — an individual, either inside or outside of the group, is making the decision, and the rest of the group is not involved in making the decision in any way. The would not even know that the decision was made.
  • Inform — an individual is making the decision, and informs the rest of the group of the decision that was made after the fact.
  • Consult — an individual is making the decision, only after consulting the group members and explicitly soliciting their input.
  • Democratic — the group is using a democratic vote to make the decision. The group will move forward with the option with the most votes/majority/supermajority.
  • Consent — all group members must not object to a certain course of action for the decision to be ratified. Objections must be reasoned and paramount. Full agreement that this is the best path forward is not required, just that you can “live with the decision” or view it as “safe enough to try”.
  • Consensus — all group members must agree that this is the best path forward.
The Decision Making Spectrum

Communicating difficult decisions

People in leadership roles are often asked to make decisions that have broad implications for the rest of the organization.

A good decision-making process aims to give everyone a voice, but rarely should it give everyone a vote (an important and underappreciated distinction). However, sometimes even the former is not always possible.

Even once you’ve made a decision, the hard part is not over. Now it needs to be thoughtfully communicated to everyone that’s affected by it.

After getting this terribly wrong several times and having to deal with the backlash, I was able to identify a few key pieces that seem to make some communications better than others. Is it the perfect structure? Probably not. And of course, it needs to be adapted to the specific context every time. But it seems to put me on the right track much more so than starting from a blank page each time.

In any case, here it is:

Outcome → Trigger → Options → Decision → Empathy → Dialogue

(Sorry, haven’t come up with a neat mnemonic yet)

  1. Outcome — the decision that we made. No sugar-coating. No lengthy preamble. Those who care less about the decision, or were heavily involved in the decision-making process will usually stop here. Those who are heavily invested but were not heavily involved will read on.
  2. Trigger — decisions are not made in a vacuum. Usually, there was some trigger that led us to re-examine the status quo and consider a different path forward. We can’t assume that everyone has that context, and understanding this “why” is an important piece in buying into the outcome.
  3. Options — this is the “show your work” section. Give more details about the decision-making process. Who was involved? What other options were considered? When this part remains opaque some people will assume the worst: that you made the decision out of ignorance and didn’t even consider “their” solution. By providing more visibility into the options that were considered, rather than just the option that was selected, we’re making it easier for everyone to assume competence and positive intent.
  4. Decision — re-iterating the option that was picked and explaining the rationale behind picking it over the other options.
  5. Empathy — acknowledging the imperfect outcome, and that there are negative consequences for some people or that some people will be disappointed or frustrated by going with that option. Creating the space for those emotions and normalizing them.
  6. Dialogue — an invitation to continue the conversation. Even though the decision was already made, some people may need further processing and dialogue in order to come to terms with it. And sometimes, certain edge cases will require further action / making amends.

Here’s a fictional example of using this structure announcing a benefits cut:


[Outcome] Starting 1/1/18 we will no longer be able to offer a monthly gym stipend to our staff.

[Trigger] As part of our 2018 budgeting process, the People team was asked to identify a way to reduce our benefits budget by $100K to help ACME Corp extend our runway to 2 years before we have to raise another round.

[Options] We considered several ways by which we can drive this reduction, including (but not limited to) reducing the matching in our 401(k) program, increasing the employee participation rates in our healthcare program, and not offering a catered lunch in one of the days of the week.

[Decision] We favored reductions that don’t have a direct impact on people’s take-home pay over ones that do; and reductions that impact some of our staff over ones that impact all of it. This was not an easy decision to make, as all options have some negative consequences, but the rationale above led us to pick eliminating our gym stipend as the best way to meet our reduction target.

[Empathy] We know that some of you may be disappointed, or even angry by this decision. It is a completely normal reaction to something that has an unpleasant consequence for you.

[Dialogue] If this decision creates a particularly challenging circumstances for you, or if you just want to learn more about the process that led us here — we’d like to invite you to reach out to us. We’d be happy to share more details or think through creative solutions where needed.

— The People team.

Communicating difficult decisions

Intro to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy

Psychological Flexibility

A little over a year ago, I learned about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) from my mom, who found it to be a rather compelling approach in her animal-assisted therapy work.

Wikipedia’s definition of ACT is pretty straight-forward:

A form of counseling and a branch of clinical behavior analysis. It is an empirically-based psychological intervention that uses acceptance and mindfulness strategies mixed in different ways with commitment and behavior-change strategies, to increase psychological flexibility.

ACT promotes the development of a “psychological flexibility” mindset, consisting of 4 mindfulness principles (being present, acceptance, diffusion, self as context) + clear values + committed action.

Intrigued by the idea of incorporating mindfulness concepts into a more rigorous psychological approach, I’ve decided to read Russ Harris’

The Happiness Trap

It was a delightful read, providing an easy to read overview of the theoretical basis as ACT, as well as highly actionable protocols (exercises) that brought many of the principles to life in a very tangible way. You can find the deck that I’ve put together to summarize the key ideas, below:

Interestingly enough, a few months back I came across a somewhat similar framework, created by Vipassana teacher Michele McDonald. McDonald defines the qualities that define a moment of mindfulness using the acronym RAIN:

  • Recognition — What is really happening? (ACT: being present)
  • Acceptance — Can we accept that it’s happening? (ACT: acceptance)
  • Interest — Can we bring genuine interest to what is happening? (ACT: self as context)
  • Non-identification — Is this happening “to me”, or is it simply happening? (ACT: defusion)

A lack of mindfulness moment can be described using the acronym DROP: Distraction, Resistance, Obliviousness, Personification.

Intro to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy