I am back in the UK this week. It is a Public Holiday on Monday. We’ve not got out much so far this weekend, but it has been good to be at home. I was in Germany last week – for an excellent Symposium and a series of successful meetings. This weekend is time to relax and recharge. We are staying put. There are always events, but other than a walk this afternoon I doubt we are going anywhere. Time to enjoy the little things and to ignore the big things.
Germany was a superb place to visit, and they were great meetings. A heady mix of partnership and friendship. We talked science and industry, families and people. I also tried to explain to the concept of urban myths. Over dinner. Over wine. Two nights on the trot. I would assess my performance as ‘improvement needed’. Better examples would have helped. On my flight home, I remembered Abilene, Texas. But that’s not really an urban myth – more of a paradox. And it’s hard enough to explain a paradox in English…maybe that’s the point.
One hot, humid summer afternoon, Jerry, his wife and family were enjoying themselves at home in Texas. Jerry’s father-in-law suggests a trip to Abilene (a two hour car ride each way). Jerry thinks this is a terrible idea as Abilene is a long drive, the heat’s unbearable and they are already having a good time at home. But Jerry didn’t want to disagree because he thought everyone else was excited by the suggestion. After four long hours driving with no air conditioning, everyone admitted they only agreed because they thought everyone else was excited by the idea.
Abilene is a story I have been told – and have told – many times. As a ‘paradox’ it highlights the importance of team dynamics. Jerry and his family all had a terrible time…something they would have avoided if any one of them had expressed their doubts about the original idea.
I often think about Abilene in (or this week, after) discussions – there are always many topics on which project teams are well aligned…but there are also discussions where a team doesn’t agree. Disagreement in a project team is a good thing. At the very least, disagreement tends to engage colleagues in debate more than does agreement. And the moment we disagree, we have opportunity to move a debate into territory that may not have been explored.
But encouraging disagreement can be a difficult skill – especially in project teams involving several companies or groups. Not agreeing is difficult to do well – for example, reasoned debate will always work better than emotional statements. And often we find that expressing disagreement is just difficult to do at all – especially if it is not the norm in a team.
There always tends to be more reasons why we won’t express disagreement than we have motivation to speak up. Colleagues seldom want to be the perennial naysayer; we want to avoid being the odd-one-out; we may feel inexperienced …or simply want to avoid appearing disruptive.
In our meetings last week, we agreed we needed more disagreement. More open disagreement. More positive and well-reasoned disagreement. The work we do is research – there are not many right or wrong answers – rather opinions and options; preferences and priorities.
Debate, discussion and differing views will lead to better decisions and improved outcomes. As well as explicitly giving permission to each other to speak up and disagree, we also affirmed that when given chance to communicate we should all be confident that disagreement is good.
Collectively we can avoid that trip to Abilene.