No, don’t debate excellence; become excellent at debating.
“It is better to debate a decision without settling it than settling a decision without debating it.” – Joseph Joubert
Vigorous debate is critical to clear thinking in an organization. Debates garner the full intelligence of an organization. For decisions of great import, rigorous debate depersonalizes the decision.
People are predisposed to focus on symptoms or minutia. Arguing over extraneous details is inefficient and is often the root cause of the lack of buy-in, indecisiveness, and slowness of many organizations. Debate bar-raisers lead teams to identify the crux of the issue which leads to a deeper understanding by everyone; creating situations where people can successfully Have Backbone, Disagree and Commit.
The Process for Great Debate
- Disarm. Ensure everyone involved knows it is debate time. Explicitly say “The next 15 minutes will are going into debate mode. Let’s debate this with ferocity!” or ensure it is clear the whole point of the meeting is to debate a topic.
- Create or identify a starting point. Attempt to state the problem in the simplest way possible; as a skeleton. Plant seeds and then let the team expand.
- Ask hard questions that would spark debate. Ask an unsettling question. Ask questions that cause the problem to be viewed in a different light (e.g. “What would it take?” or “How hard would it be?”).
- Demand evidence. The debate will be richest if it is based on facts, not opinions, and it takes foresight to gather the right information (thus ensure people do homework before). “How do you know what you just said is true?” Make demanding rigor the norm.
- Involve everyone. When leading a debate, explicitly target everyone in the room with a question. See “Disarm” above.
- Switch positions. Push people to argue the opposing side or argue from a different function perspective.
Here are some things to avoid when driving a debate.
- Avoid sharing your own views up-front. Being a great debater requires a fundamental shift in the understanding of your role. The one leading the debate should refrain from making assertions instead of focusing on just asking great questions (or enabling others to).
- Stop leading the witness! Don’t ask gotcha questions. Don’t ask questions to make a point.
- Don’t attack or criticize the speaker; focus on the idea. For example, don’t say, “Sally, that’s stupid.” Instead, say, “Sally, I don’t understand what you mean by XYZ.”
- Don’t force a decision. Don’t cut off debate. Debating is hard and exhausting. But it is precisely this hard work they are paying you big bucks for. If the topic is important, finding another hour to debate further is almost always the wise choice.
How to Identify What To Debate
Often a team isn’t quite sure what to debate. Or, there’s so much ambiguity that teams find the topic keeps shifting. For example, in the earliest stages of an endeavor (for example, when a startup is formed or a new project is funded), teams may find dozens of topics that need to be figured out.
A great way to break a bigger problem down to create structure and then get to each issue’s crux is to identify and debate a set of tenets. See my post on Crafting Tenets and Debating Tenets for how to do this.
Have you ever heard the phrase “we’re just debating semantics now; this is pointless!”? That’s almost always an indication there is a problem that needs to be debated more. Agreeing on semantics is paramount to gaining clarity of thought!
semantics [səˈman(t)iks] NOUN – the branch of linguistics and logic concerned with meaning.
Creating a clear Taxonomy and Lexicon with distinctive & pithy terms is one of the most powerful ways to drive effective execution. Ensuring folks are bought-in requires teams to debate the definitions. Literally, you want to have debates on the semantics!
Here are some more reads on the power of debate, and how to be more excellent at debating:
- Multipliers, Revised and Updated: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter by Liz Wiseman
- Debate Tenets by me.
Feel free to use the comments functionality to debate me on this post.