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Everything is fragmented—The art of “ritual dissent”

This article appears in the issue April 2009 [Volume 18, Issue 4]


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This month I want to look at a simple but effective method to increase the resilience of any proposal, whether it’s a matter of organizational strategy or the design stage of a new knowledge management system. Last month I talked about a method to get people to work together across organizational silos to handle the intractable aspects of a large project. Now I want to turn it to formal proposals of various types.

Many of you have shared the experience of working hard and long on a proposal, having it accepted and then seeing the vision fall apart as the implementation reveals unexpected problems, resistance to change and downright hostility. Because you probably had spent considerable time gathering user requirements and considering all the options, you take the rejection personally. Another example is when you are part of a large team dealing with a complex problem and go off site to work it through. When the solutions come back together, the pressure is on you to accept the work of another team, even if you have expertise in the area and disagree with their conclusions."

People who have read my previous columns will understand one issue right away. A complex problem is not the sum of its parts. It cannot be broken down with each solution aggregated; it must be solved as a whole. Another issue is that of entrainment, especially in consensus-seeking environments. The more time we spend in a group, the more groupthink sets in, and we can create our own reality, only to suffer a rude awakening when we engage with the external world. Consensus-based discussion also carries the danger of verbal game playing. If one more person says, "I would like to build on what Dave just said," when they really mean, "I want to show you just how little Dave understands," I’m going to lose my patience.

Now there is another way, and it’s simple to implement. After I experimented with it for several years, I eventually christened it "ritual dissent." Once I explain how it works, you will see the reason for the name. The overall procedure, which is fairly simple, is a workshop process (although it could, with some minor variations, be run virtually). It works for three groups of three at a minimum, but larger groups (such as five tables of five or more) work as well. I have used it successfully in large group exercises with hundreds of people in a big hall. The following steps are taken:

  • Each of the groups is asked to work in parallel on the wider issue or problem, and ideally do so with some knowledge of different approaches. A complex problem is handled by small safe-fail experiments, a complicated one by detailed analysis and the application of expertise.
  • After the groups have worked for a bit, they are told that they will present their ideas to one of the next tables, which will act as a review panel. They are asked to appoint a spokesperson who must have a resilient personality and who is unlikely to easily bear a grudge.
  • After a reasonable time for reflection, each spokesperson moves to another table and presents his or her ideas to the review panel, which receives the proposal in total silence. At the end of the presentations (I normally set a time limit), the spokespeople turn their chairs around so their backs are to the panels, and they are told that they can say nothing—no explanations, no rebuttals, no clarifications; all they can do is listen.
  • The review panels are instructed to shred their ideas, not necessarily to be fair or reasonable but to assume the worst of all possible cases … to play the part of the disenchanted and cynical user who will destroy a good idea for the sake of it. After about 10 minutes of that, you call a halt and the spokespeople return to their original group.
  • Two learnings have now taken place: The person subject to criticism has obviously been through the wringer, but in addition, the criticism of another set of ideas has taught the dummy review panel something too. They revise their proposals, and the process repeats until on the last iteration instead of criticism, you ask for constructive improvements.

You may not think so, but people enjoy the process, certainly after the first iteration. Idealistic processes try to get people to listen openly and consider all options; naturalistic processes replicate real life. That criticism is just what you are going to get when your idea goes out into the real world, and you need to know it now. Listening without the right to answer back or engage in discourse or dialog leads to better listening. We have used this technique in controlled experiments to show improvement in battlefield planning and have applied it to a range of business problems both technology-based and otherwise. I don’t think it’s ever failed, unless you have an audience of facilitators who passionately believe that everyone should be nice to each other. It may be nice at the time, but the consequences can be catastrophic.


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