Listen to the dissenters, they will save your company

Listen to the dissenters, they will save your company

Time to think REALLY different, and why dissenters are your most valuable assets… if you can stand to hear what they have to say, that is.

Limits are not final, limits are not set in stone, and limits for today are certainly not rules to be adhered to for ever. Limits are merely the extent of what your imagination considers possible right now. If your business is centered on providing products and services that can be in any way replicated, assume that someone is already looking at ways to do so, except your competition will likely provide an entirely new solution that does the job faster, or more reliably. Certainly cheaper. Their costs may well be not 10% lower than yours but 10x lower, with little of what you see as standard overhead. And they will not move at 110% of your speed to market but 10x your speed, because their internal communication moves like greased lightning and their entire organisation is aligned towards that overly ambitious goal, way over the horizon line. Considering limits as somehow preordained and needing to be adhered to, is terminal.

Culture in any organisation is subject to the same forces of compliance and dissent as any social group. “Culture determines and limits strategy,” said MIT psychology professor Edgar Schein in his Organizational Culture and Leadership. He was talking specifically about the need to match organisational cultures in a merger situation, but the larger point remains – culture is an organisation’s spinal cord, its oral history, its mythology, the way and the why its people do things without giving it a second thought. Can a small group of dissenters bring about positive cultural change, leading to sustainable innovation thinking?

There is no considering of innovation as separate from culture because not integrating the two will always mean that a culture hostile to innovation will first immobilise then marginalise it. The right culture on the other hand will be conducive to innovation thinking occurring naturally in your ranks. There is also no innovation without communication: imagine an organisation successfully implementing something as complex and all-embracing as a real, down to the marrow programme designed to get its people to think differently. Now think about the chances of success for such a programme without a correspondingly sophisticated communication programme. Any change manager will raise her eyebrows at the suggestion.

Dissent may seem like the thing to weed out from the ranks. Instead, it ought to be seen as an asset. Consider this: where do you get your thoughts from? This is not quite as ridiculous a question as it seems. If the main source of your thoughts are your other, existing thoughts, you are reducing all of them in their own sauce – to use a cooking metaphor. This means that any cognitive biases such as self-referential confirmation bias which you may have (and we all do) will be reinforced, and your field of vision narrowed. We are stuck in perceiving reality through the same glasses we have always worn. Decisions compounding on decisions from the past, paths walked down in the same direction, in the same order as always. One of the most important reasons to treat diversity as a tactical advantage is to allow multiple perspectives to ameliorate our biases – perspectives from a variety of different people.

It is an entirely normal human trait to try to make the unfamiliar fit into a familiar context, and exclude any parts that do not fit. We do it without so much as a thought, and then group biases slide in and reinforce group decisions as “of course that was the right thing to do.” To get along with others in the group, we agree to agree, silencing any objection from our independent thinking faculties. Extensive research into group behaviour, by Irving Jarvis who coined the term “groupthink”, and many others, demonstrates that we often adjust what we believe according to the agreed position of the group, quite regardless of what the facts may be – conforming to majority opinion, even when the majority is wrong. It sounds implausible, but that is precisely what happens. Rupert Brown, commented on the famous conformity experiments conducted by the Polish-American psychologist Solomon Asch in the 1950s where many people were willing to ignore reality in order to fit into the group. Some people who went along with “the majority”, Brown concluded, “lacked confidence in their own judgement, assuming that others in the experiment were privy to some additional information that was guiding their responses” while others “were not actually doubting what they saw, simply conformed so as not to be different.” Brown added “Exact replication and various modifications of Asch’s experiment have been conducted in a large number of different countries and the basic conformity phenomena which he discovered seem to be remarkably persistent.”

This of course means, conformity fuels itself – as more people agree, more are likely to also agree. Conformity becomes more prevalent as the homogeneity of the group increases. With this in mind, consider for a moment the fact that top management is usually the least diverse group of people in the company, composed almost entirely of experts in the field, for whom decades of experience have honed their professional faculties to a fine edge. They are safe in their knowledge of the business, and possess high-grade skills which allow them to extract value from what they know best. That is also, unfortunately, precisely the right mix of mindset and focus to keep them oblivious to impending disruption, and the opposite of what is required to seed and grow innovation thinking. To help initiate the shift to accommodate these processes, the top brass need to signal that by welcoming dissenting voices they intend for the company to be at the vanguard of innovation thinking. Dissent, by a diverse group of individuals with varying outlooks, backgrounds and perspectives is a key asset, to be encouraged and nurtured, not thwarted. Naturally, for this to work, dissent needs to be seen as a force aimed at improving the company’s chances of success.

Unfortunately, most companies do not see it that way and, instead, continue to insist that the best way may be, for example, to compete on price in a crowded market and spend more money on advertising because that is what has worked in the past, even if the indications are that it does not any more. Such companies are not long for this world, especially if they have in place restrictive systems which limit people’s ability to think freely.

This is an excerpt from Ralph’s book on about creativity, empathy and agents of change: “The Pig not the Lipstick” – on how leaders can build sustainable innovation thinking inside their organisations, by using methods and approaches drawn from the creative industries.

Author, speaker and consultant on strategic creativity, innovation & communication, good at seeing the big picture and spotting connections between people and concepts. Catalyst & Sensemaker at Poland's highest ranked private university, the University of Social Sciences and Humanities; startup founder, knee-deep in Europe’s startup and mobile community. (Founder Institute and PwC StartupCollider mentor.) Curator for TEDxWarsaw and contributor to technology and media events as speaker, programme director and/or moderator.