In his classic business article Benson Shapiro posed the question, “Can marketing and manufacturing coexist?” (Harvard Business Review, September-October 1977.) Anyone with experience in production or operations is acquainted with the controversies that occur with marketing over sales forecasts, production priorities, delivery times, quality, and new product introductions.

The problem is caused by numerous differences between the two functions – their measures for success and reliance of marketing on soft data vs. manufacturing’s hard numbers. After all, creative marketing types think more randomly and intuitively with the right side of their brains; manufacturing managers are dominated by the left side of their brains and think in linear, logical sequences. Put simply, each function is of a different mindset.

While marketing and manufacturing are core activities of a business, the fact of the matter is such interfaces and potential for conflict also exist within and between every function. Across most businesses, employees view their responsibilities and activities with differing priorities. Quite naturally, therefore, the potential for conflict is high, be it in small cross-functional teams tasked with resolving relatively minor issues or senior-level groups crafting strategic plans.

Get everyone thinking

In the face of such potential conflict, some management philosophers believe in a warm, fuzzy approach built on the absence of confrontation and the fast attainment of consensus. A smart leader, however, encourages the tension inherent in any team or group. He understands that most group participants have valuable ideas to contribute, some of which may be divisive. He believes in the words of General George Patton, “If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody is not thinking.”

Enlightened management thinkers like Patrick Lencioni, author of The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, believe that the lack of candid debate over ideas, concepts, and needed decisions dooms a company to poor performance. By fearing to rock the boat, participants fail to push the envelope, and the consequences of groupthink can be disastrous.

We’re not talking about infighting and politics but rather civil deliberation over concepts, ideas, and methods aimed at producing the best possible solution, decision, or plan. Lencioni says that teams that make conflict part of their modus operandi:

• Consider the ideas of all members

• Resolve problems quickly

• Minimize politics

• Discuss all critical topics

Clearly the path to healthy confrontation is to make the discussion a battle of ideas, not wills. Experts offer these suggestions on how to engender real teamwork and reach the best conclusions and solutions:

Communicate the common objective.It goes without saying that the team’s goal must be clearly stated. Beyond that step everyone involved should see an interest in reaching the best decision. Often that requires a noble, save-the-world purpose that goes beyond making more money. The group leader must frame the challenge accordingly.

Insist on preparedness. Participants must be armed with the facts relevant to the conversation, not just unfounded opinions. Only then can debate be substantive and productive.

Focus the team on the future. Managers spend 85 percent of their time looking backwards. But let’s face it, you cannot change history. Discussions about the past should focus on what to do with any lessons learned and how to effect needed change, not who to blame for under performance.

Set the rules of engagement early. Personal agendas must be checked at the meeting room door. Statements that elicit defensive responses must be prohibited. The real goal is spirited examination of everyone’s ideas, opinions, and thoughts without animosity between the group members.

Create an atmosphere of openness. The group must be willing to consider others’ ideas. Everyone should be allowed to see an issue from the point of view of their own philosophy, experience, and constituency. As the leader you should never signify that your mind is already made up. Show your interest by taking notes, showing patience, and asking questions, especially of reluctant participants.

Encourage broad thinking. It’s okay for a member from finance, for example, to have a thought about marketing. And don’t forget to consider ideas taken from the experience of other industries. The old cliche applies: There is no such thing as a crazy thought.

Challenge the current assumptions about your business. When you understand that your marketplace is changing and do nothing about it, you maintain the status quo and spend energy getting better at the wrong things.

Look at the pros and cons. Too often in advocating a position, its flaws are downplayed by its supporters. Full consideration of all alternatives requires analysis of strengths and weaknesses.

Embed a devil’s advocate in the group. His role is to stimulate more lively debate by expanding the pool of ideas and opinions.

Save your opinions as leader till last. Doing so will encourage a wider range of ideas from the group especially those unwilling to challenge you.

Conclude only after sufficient debate. Beware of accepting the first feasible alternative. Ensure that every participant’s ideas and objections have been surfaced. As the leader you should summarize all the presented ideas, thoughts, and opinions before closing.

Explain your decision. At the end of the day, you as leader must often make a tough call. In doing so, communicate how you considered the participants’ input and reached the conclusion.

These suggestions create a sense of fairness among participants. The members come away feeling they were heard. Their ideas and recommendations were considered fully even those that were rejected. Rarely is a decision, plan, or solution a slam dunk, 100 percent clear cut. But the process that led to those conclusions should be well conceived and executed.

In the end that fairness leads to consensus and alignment. That result gives you a better-than-average shot at successful implementation and improved performance.

Bottom Line: Lack of controversy is the sign of an unthinking organization. Don’t be afraid of conflict. Dissension is what’s required to develop the best plans and solutions for your company. 

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