4 Key Ingredients to “Disagree and Commit”

Jeff Bezos on his 2016 letter to shareholders shared an advice to settle some disputes of Amazon on decision making.

“Third, use the phrase “disagree and commit.” This phrase will save a lot of time. If you have conviction on a particular direction even though there’s no consensus, it’s helpful to say, “Look, I know we disagree on this but will you gamble with me on it? Disagree and commit?” By the time you’re at this point, no one can know the answer for sure, and you’ll probably get a quick yes.

This isn’t one way. If you’re the boss, you should do this too. I disagree and commit all the time.”

When I read this the first time I loved it. It cuts noise, it’s pragmatic and saves a lot of time to people and consequently to the company. It takes a sense of maturity and delegation capability to be able to do something like this but in the company of a 100 CEO’s it seems damn appropriate.

Since I’ve read this I’ve been preaching this “mantra” to a different number of people both in my professional and personal settings. It doesn’t mean that data/facts do not come first in decision making but, in the absence of it, this pragmatic approach can eliminate those frequent meetings that seem to consume your and your company’s time like wildfire.

I’ve seen clearly its limitations as well (right in my skin!) though. I came to realise there are critical conditions to make this work, especially if you’re in the commit and not in the agree end.

Playing the Hangman Game

About one year ago I took a project that I was pretty vocal about. I actually knew that I got it playing a Hangman Game, in which surprisingly I could not get that the person’s name was actually my name!

I was vocal about it because I really believed that it was one of those solutions that feels like a patch/bandage; a silver bullet of sorts and I don’t believe in them and neither should you.

I’m a more of a Lead Bullets kind of guy.

At first I laughed when I got the lead on the project. The words of Ned Stark — “The man who passes the sentence should swing the sword.” — crossed my mind. I was going to silence it!

Instead, I took the advice of Jeff Bezos — I Disagreed and Committed.


The project was intense. Not only the initiative had a high risk, it was connected to almost every stakeholder/department in the company. More than running it operationally, I guess, the main pain point of it involved significant conflict resolution between parties.

Data was not abundant to sort disagreements, so a lot of opinions started to get thrown around and once again we would get to those “Disagree & Commit” cliffs or worse… deciding the victor by resilience: who would fight longer would get its way.

It’s when you get to those obstacles that it starts to hit you:

“Why the hell did I committed to this… I did not even agree with this in the first place….”

Your execution skills starts to falter. You start to underperform. The objectives start not getting hit.

“Man I told you this would happen….If only you had listen to me….”

You get to these “Told you so” cycles and on the heat of things they get shorter and shorter every time.

Suddenly the “Disagree & Commit” starts to break and you start to be less committed and disagreeing once again. The spiral of “not gonna work” starts to get you and you start to lose your energy and most importantly your will and resilience to push forward.

What now?

After this point I don’t have much advice. I learned that the trick resides in preparation so you don’t get to these points.

Though if you get there, just take a Rocky pill and keep moving forward!

“Life’s not about how hard of a hit you can give… it’s about how many you can take, and still keep moving forward.” 

― Rocky Balboa

So should we use it — Disagree & Commit — or not? Definitely yes. You gain velocity to decision making which is critical but I’ve come to realise it comes with a price tag: a sort of cost of the committed — especially if the one committing is the person executing.

I believe there are critical conditions/ingredients for both the “agreers” and the “committers” to make it this framework work. Here it goes my homemade recipe!


THE RECIPE TO DISAGREE & COMMIT

1. Trust (or even faith?)

If you don’t trust, you can’t commit.

In battlefield terms this is the kind of trust that you can say “Cover me” and make a run for the nearest cover while your comrade is suppressing fire. If you are going to run that mile where you know the enemy is going to shoot you from everywhere, you better make sure there is trust between you and your comrade covering you, if not you will look over your shoulder during the run and you will get shot.

Like Ben Horowitz shares:

“Consider the following. If I trust you completely, then I require no explanation or communication of your actions whatsoever, because I know that whatever you are doing is in my best interests. 

On the other hand, if I don’t trust you at all, then no amount of talking, explaining or reasoning will have any effect on me, because I do not trust that you are telling me the truth.”

2. Be a Pig not a Chicken

Using the business fable of Pigs & Chicken. Put some “ham” into it, not “eggs”.

Don’t sell the idea and then ask to be built somehow. Be part of it! If you want it to be executed think on the details and help the “committers” on their job.

Give the “committers” a good compass to maintain them on course and achieve the vision you initially sold to them.

“Disagreeing and Committing” might get you the compliance of your team members and employees but it does not cut you short on responsibility.

It’s actually the other way around, people are putting their belief in you, not the plan/idea, so don’t let them down. Help build the plan. Make it work with them, don’t put them to work.

3. Be consistent — Stay on track.

You got the commitment of your peers and employees. Great! They kick off the project and start building with you the idea and start to get traction. They provide you a structure to work: processes, people, measurement, the full works!

And then you came up and say:

“Uh let’s try this a little bit differently” or “We’re not being bold enough”

Though this could be perfectly reasonable, especially in highly dynamic landscapes as startups work on top of, be very careful with the frequency.

If you shatter the output of your committers too often you shake their belief and, while at it, the trust they have in you. Look for answers why is not working — learn with failure — and be blunt with your team and yourself with those answers.

4. Share the Burden but Don’t Cry.

For the (disagree &) committers out there: don’t get that frustrated!

Sharing your feedback, your concerns are critical to any business setting but following orders is as important. Execution sometimes might be fueled by belief, though sometimes, it’s plain cold soldiering work and it should be.

Share the burden with your colleagues, friends, and family. They will provide you with new ways to look at the problem and probably might reignite some flames of belief in you to continue to keep pushing forward.

But don’t keep crying and keep telling “I told you so”. Nobody cares!

“All the mental energy that you use to elaborate your misery would be far better used trying to find the one, seemingly impossible way out of your current mess. It’s best to spend zero time on what you could have done and all of your time on what you might do. Because in the end, nobody cares” 

Ben Horowitz


I’ve written this 2 months ago. I’ve come back to the article multiple times and I’m more and more inclined that this type of dynamics is not only for “Disagreeing & Committing”.

Trust more than anything is what makes it work. It is what binds or breaks teams. It’s what enables true teamwork to happen and extraordinary things to follow. It’s what makes or destroys companies.

 

 

 

 

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