In Boston, in early February, the Lower Basin of the Charles River is frozen. I know there's life in the river, though, because some ducks and geese are wintering over here. I'm guessing that the ducks especially appreciate this morning's bright sun, because about 50 of them are gathered on the ice in the lee of the left bank, warming themselves. They sit contentedly, heads turned completely backward, bills tucked under wings, in contorted postures that could be comfortable only for ducks.
They close their eyes, but they aren't asleep. Every once in a while, they peek — to check that all's well and that no threats have appeared. When they peek, each sees a different part of the world, because no two ducks face in exactly the same direction. But they do see some of the other ducks.
Since each individual faces in a different direction, the flock can see the whole world. If a threat appears, some ducks see it, and they stir. The others who can see them, in turn, stir too, and within a second or two all the ducks know about the threat.
This system works because each duck settles into a position that it finds uniquely comfortable. The ducks don't demand that everyone face in exactly the same direction, or that all bills be tucked under the same wingpit. They let it happen however it happens. The diversity of direction guarantees the security of the flock.
of the flockIn group problem solving, we sometimes forget this lesson. Diversity of opinion, and healthy, reasoned debate, ensure that our conclusions take into account all the difficulties we can anticipate. When we impose lock-step thinking, and when we pressure each other to limit debate, we limit the exploration of sources of risk, which, ironically, exposes us to the risk of unanticipated risk.
To reach sound decisions, we need vigorous debate. Yet, in some organizations, questioning proposals that have lots of momentum can feel very unsafe, especially if powerful people propose them.
The "Curmudgeon Team" is a possible workaround. When you're considering a proposal, appoint several people to team up to oppose the idea. Make it their job to ask the difficult questions and to pose the difficult what-ifs. This approach invigorates the debate, and it's a lot of fun, especially in costume. To avoid any long-lasting effect on individuals, rotate this job on a monthly basis.
After you've run Curmudgeon Teams for several months, and you've seen how they strengthen decisions and proposals, the safety issue will lessen. You'll use this artifice less often, because people will have come to appreciate differences. And maybe they'll even learn to trust each other as much as do the ducks on the ice of the Charles River. Top Next Issue
Are you fed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you or a colleague the target of a bully? Destructive conflict can ruin organizations. But if we believe that all conflict is destructive, and that we can somehow eliminate conflict, or that conflict is an enemy of productivity, then we're in conflict with Conflict itself. Read 101 Tips for Managing Conflict to learn how to make peace with conflict and make it an organizational asset. Order Now!
For more about differences and disagreements, see "When You Think They've Made Up Their Minds," Point Lookout for May 21, 2003; "Towards More Gracious Disagreement," Point Lookout for January 9, 2008; "Blind Agendas," Point Lookout for September 2, 2009; and "Is the Question "How?" or "Whether?"," Point Lookout for August 31, 2011.
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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 18: The Trap of Beautiful Language
- As we assess the validity of others' statements, we risk making a characteristically human error — we confuse the beauty of their language with the reliability of its meaning. We're easily thrown off by alliteration, anaphora, epistrophe, and chiasmus. Available here and by RSS on December 18.
- And on December 25: Disjoint Awareness
- In collaborations, awareness of how our own work might interfere with the work of others is essential. Unless our awareness of others' work — and their awareness of ours — matches reality, the collaboration's objective is at risk. Available here and by RSS on December 25.
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