As business leaders, our organizations depend on us to make the best decisions for the success of our businesses. The challenge, of course, is that most of these decisions need to be made without complete information and with conflicting facts or opinions. The result is that many times we make decisions without fully analyzing the information and considering the pros and cons of the course of action decided upon.
Well, that is not exactly true.
Most of us do consider all the “pros” to a course of action. Where we often fall down is in not thinking through the “cons.” We do not seriously consider the arguments against the decision, strategy, or course of action.
Way back in high school or college, we likely learned about something called the dialectic and how to use it to improve critical thinking and evaluate decisions (and write a good term paper). The dialectic consists of three parts.
- Thesis: The thesis includes all the reasons and justifications for doing something (the “pros”)
- Antithesis: The antithesis includes all the reasons and arguments for not doing something (the “cons”)
- Synthesis: The synthesis is the modified version of the original thesis that takes into account the arguments of the antithesis. By considering all the counter-arguments to the thesis, the synthesis is well-thought out and stronger.
Well, let’s see it work in an example.
When I would interview for a senior manager role, such as a General Manager, one of my most important questions would be: “what are your weaknesses relative to this position?” Of course, I would then have to listen to 2 – 3 minutes of well-trained gobbledygook about how they work too hard, care too much, or some other strength which they would be trying to masquerade as a weakness. I would cut them off and tell them what I saw as their three biggest weaknesses, e.g., “you have a great background in manufacturing, but you do not know services,” or “you know operations but you have little experience with sales”, or “you do not know the industry.”
I would then ask them: “if you are hired, what are you going to do about these weaknesses?” The response to this question would be insightful about the ability and commitment of the candidate.
Moreover, for the selected candidate, we would both have a good understanding and agreement on the candidate’s strengths and weaknesses, and we would create a short-term action plan that included coaching and training to address these weaknesses. For other equally strong candidates, by considering seriously their weaknesses, I would realize that no amount of planning, coaching, training, or re-alignment of responsibilities would overcome their weaknesses and/or deficiencies for the position. Thus, they were not hired.
Some companies have tried a similar approach in decision making by having a dedicated “devil’s advocate”. The role of the devil’s advocate is to argue against the decision (to argue the antithesis). This can be effective, but requires that the devil’s advocate is someone that is highly respected and whose opinion counts. And the role of devil’s advocate needs to rotate among different people from time to time to prevent one person getting the reputation of a “naysayer”. Finally, while useful for bigger decisions, having a formal devil’s advocate is not practical for the dozens of smaller decisions we, as leaders, have to make.
In short, we need to become our own personal devil’s advocate.
I can hear some of you thinking:
- “This takes too much time that I do not have”
- “We are doers and not thinkers and it is time to do”
- “Analysis paralysis.”
- “This is a fancy term, but it is just not practical.”
Yes, when poorly done, arguing the “antithesis” or having a “devil’s advocate” is useless and does slow things down. But, embracing the “antithesis” and then coming up with a superior “synthesis” can be done well and done simply.
For starters, we should…
- Identify and write down the three most important reasons against a new strategy, decision, or course of action.
- Think seriously about whether they are critical weaknesses
- If not critical, consider how we can avoid or mitigate these weaknesses
- If we have some time, we should come back a few hours or a day later and think through these weaknesses again
- Modify our original thesis to account for the weaknesses and create a better synthesis
By embracing the antithesis and spending even a few minutes considering how to argue for our “thesis” and against our “antithesis”, we will gains insights that will make for a better, easier to implement, and ultimately more successful strategy, decision, or course of action.
Until Next Time.