Thursday, August 4, 2011

The value of open disagreement

"Hi, my name is Chuck, and I'll be your
meeting facilitator."
Photo credit: Septic Rainbow
Paul's comments this morning on the passing of Robert Shapiro and his willingness to criticize science publicly reminds me of a favorite passage from Mark Bowden's Black Hawk Down* on the different styles of Army planning sessions, contrasting between the by-the-book Rangers and the more freewheeling Delta operators : 
They [Delta] could be comically arrogant. When they'd gotten a list of potential target sites, for instance, the D-boys had divvied them up among different teams. Each was assigned to draw up an assault plan. Since his men were involved, [Captain] Steele had sat in on the meeting when the various schemes were presented. The captain's experience with such a planning session was like this: You say there are took notes and asked questions only to make sure you got things down correctly and then saluted on your way out. 
The D-boys' meeting was a free-for-all. One group would present its plan and somebody would pipe up, "Why, that's the stupidest thing I ever heard," which would provoke a sturdy "F--- you," which quickly degenerated into guys screaming at each other. It looked to Steele like they were about to assume Kung Fu stances and have it out.
Funny question: think to your last brainstorming session at work or your last group meeting. I'll bet it was more like Delta's meetings than not.

While it's terribly important in meetings (and seminars and conferences) to have civility, IMO it's far more valuable to have untrammeled critical thinking and open disagreement. Hopefully, such disagreements will allow for the nomination of testable hypotheses and plans to test them. While I don't think it's ever a good idea to tell someone "Why, that's the stupidest thing I ever heard", rigid conformity and repression of disagreement might just be deadlier to a project or a concept or an organization.

*In 1993, then-President Clinton sent a team of Army Rangers and Delta operators to capture Mohammed Farah Aidid, a warlord in Mogadishu, Somalia. Rangers are younger and less experienced, while Delta is considered the most elite special operations group in the US Army. Captain Mike Steele was the head of the Ranger company working with the Delta operators.

5 comments:

  1. Same thing goes for writing/proofreading. I value those who will "give it to me straight" rather than those who are too timid to make that many suggestions or corrections.

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  2. Love it - and agree.

    We've started to ritualise it in organisations where people are conformist/timid. It also helps cut out the testosterone/Kung Fu/broken limbs in the session.

    Called "Ritual Dissent" - and you can also see the "fluffy bunnies" who like to build and be positive/constructive flinch as soon as you mention it. Although they're often amongst the most vicious once you get them into it...

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  3. We have a couple of relevant sayings here at Aspen regarding this:

    1) Science is a full contact sport
    2) Don't wear your ideas over your heart, because when they are shot, you'll die. Wear them over you hand instead.

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  4. Soldiers have much more at stake in their projection than do chemists.

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  5. I thought vigorous disagreement was a routine part of science. That's the training we get - stand in front of your peers and defend yourself. I find that is not always the case in industry, it really depends on your personality type. I've met quite a few "criticize my data, criticize me" types and you have to be careful.

    In general, respectful disagreement gets you further. Vigorous disagreement can lead to a group not listening to each other (I call that "violent agreement"). Basically, there's no one-size-fits-all approach.

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