The best ideas often come from a disagreement that sparked a creative solution. So how to foster that kind of input from your team?
While it may seem counter-intuitive to want to work in an environment where your team is free to challenge you, there are advantages to fostering transparent and trusting dialog. In fact, with increasing popularity of Agile and Lean principles into project management, a culture of supportive debate is already the norm in many flat businesses where teams work collaboratively.
Why Disagreement Benefits Everyone
Disagreement isn’t about anarchy. It’s not about a project environment where every meeting turns into a shouting match of different opinions. Instead, it’s about finding ways to proactively challenge ideas, put forward alternative solutions and positively debate decisions. It’s where the team values collaboration on a project and works through differences.
You don’t know everything on your project – no one does. Project teams are by their nature multi-disciplinary and made up of subject matter experts. When encouraged to communicate freely, your team enables an essential diversity of perspectives, along with plenty of different opinions.
According to David Feitler, writing in HBR, meaningful innovation is more likely to happen when teams have diverse viewpoints and are able to express them. Project teams that have a healthy approach to collaboration will want to discuss their differing views, and not everyone is going to agree. That’s a good thing: productive argument is part of the collaboration process and teams that are open to challenge and debate are more likely to find creative solutions to problems.
Disagreement also promotes engagement. There’s nothing more dull than sitting in a project team meeting where everyone nods, and then no one acts on what you have asked because they don’t engage with the tasks. Let conflicts happen and get those challenges out in the open! Full and frank discussions help address concerns, overcome conflict and move the project forward because team members have had a voice in the process.
How to Promote Open Dialog
First, your team needs to know that you welcome their ideas, even when they are contrary to your own. Make sure that they understand that the culture of your team is one where differences are proactively sought. Help them see why: ideas that withstand challenge are better vetted and more likely to deliver business results.
However, team members on any team will only feel able to challenge when the environment is right. You can create an environment where they know their disagreement is valued by:
- Make sure your team feels supported: A positive working environment enables everyone to contribute fully. Make sure your team feels that they are trusted to do a good job and empowered to put forward suggestions.
- Take ideas seriously: You might not want to act on the suggestions, but if someone takes the time to raise an idea, the least you can do is take it seriously. Thank them for their contribution, investigate and offer feedback what you are going to do about it, if anything.
- Share how decisions are made: Let the team know how you will be making the decision so they know the parameters within which they can operate. For example, be transparent about dates. If they understand that the decision will be made next Tuesday, they’ve got enough time to put forward their views and they won’t feel frustrated that they have missed their opportunity to influence the outcome.
The most important thing about building a culture where expressing differing points of view is valued is that everyone knows how you expect it to work. Team members who aren’t aware that your leadership style involves seeking out alternative opinions may think that their colleagues are being disrespectful when they challenge an approach you want to take. Don’t take it for granted that everyone will be comfortable both sharing their differing views and watching others disagree.
The best way to handle this is to set the tone for the culture yourself. Clearly communicate the environment you are trying to create and the benefits this will bring. Show confidence in your team and your own leadership.
Encouraging Dialog in Different Teams
Virtual teams present a different problem, as you will not always have the opportunity for face-to-face meetings or one-to-ones (unless you make an effort to video conference), and you aren’t always able to read the body language of individuals to determine if they have a point to make.
You can still encourage debate in a virtual team, and use it to your advantage to strengthen both the project’s outcomes and the relationships between team members. Online collaboration software is a good tool, you can use discussion forums, video conferencing and online meetings to chat and record everyone’s views before taking a final decision. You will have to work harder to encourage disagreement in a virtual environment, but once the trust is built up in the team, you’ll find people step forward to present their views when asked. You may also need to establish rules for active participation with virtual teams to make sure the team benefits from active dialog from all members.
Multi-cultural teams can also present a different challenge. Some cultures are less willing to challenge authority (or be seen to challenge authority) than others, so if your team is made up of many nationalities, you could find that some are more reticent about putting forward their opinions. They may feel more confident doing this on a one-to-one basis rather than in a group setting such as an online discussion.
Ask them how they would feel most comfortable contributing upfront and take the time to get their opinions on subjects. Let them know that the whole team will succeed when everyone feels as if they have the right to challenge, but you may have to accept that some of your team will be less willing (or less interested) in putting forward differing views.
The Best Way to Handle Challenge
Even though you’ve asked for it, feedback can be difficult to handle. Spirited debate without boundaries can quickly dissolve into criticism and have a negative impact on morale. When faced with challenges, different opinions and a robust discussion, it can be a struggle not to take criticism personally, especially if it is directed at one of your own ideas – an idea that you thought was pretty good.
The trick is to remember that it’s not about you. Your team’s suggestions are coming from a good place: they want the project and the company to succeed so they are offering their views about how best to achieve that.
They won’t always have the full picture, so some of the ideas might be unworkable (or frankly ridiculous). Your role is to take everything on board without becoming defensive and assimilate all the ideas to form the best outcome.
If you know you can’t do anything with the suggestion but that it might be a good idea, offer to act as a conduit and take it up the line. Always provide feedback to your team, even if the feedback is that the idea isn’t suitable to take forward at this time.
Finally, don’t be afraid to say that this time there will be no debate. There are situations in business, such as a crisis, where fast decision-making is essential, and there isn’t the time or the inclination for a drawn-out debate where everyone has the chance to challenge the approach taken.
The most important thing is to keep the channels of communication open, both between team members, to you, and to your managers. An open, transparent and trusting culture where individuals feel safe to challenge the status quo will result in greater innovation, more creative solutions and a better working environment.
The discussion features of professional online project management software will let you manage feedback from your team, wherever they are based. The collaboration tools built into ProjectManager.com make it easy to keep on top of conversations in real time. It’s a great way to keep communication flowing between the team and record decisions at the same time.