I will be watching tonight's presidential debate on CNN. Maybe you will be watching too -- whether you are a Democrat, Republican or Independent.

First, let me be perfectly clear. This is not an article about my political policy views or candidates I like/dislike. This is an article about the value of real Debate, not what we see in these made for TV political shows they call presidential debates.

The Oxford Dictionaries define the word DEBATE as "a formal discussion on a particular topic in a public meeting or legislative assembly, in which opposing arguments are put forward."

In watching the last debate of the top 10 candidates in August as "moderated" by Fox News, I found myself being very frustrated with the way the questions were asked. The questions were mostly customized to an individual candidate. It was like a TV interview that you would see on a political program on Fox News or CNN. In a true debate, the moderators would provide a topic or question to the group. Then each candidate would have an opportunity to state his/her view and how he/she disagrees with the views of other candidates.

The Lincoln and Douglas Debates

I do believe Abraham Lincoln (and Steven Douglas) would be disappointed in these debates. The historic Lincoln and Douglas debates in 1858 have become the model for debate in American society. Lincoln and Douglas were both candidates running for the U.S. Senate in Illinois.

The debates were about whether slavery should be banned in the U.S. territories that had not become states. For example, Kansas was a U.S. territory then and did not become a state until 1861.

Lincoln and Douglas had 7 debates between August and October of 1858. Each debate was held outside, subject to weather conditions like heat, rain, wind, etc. Most of the debates had 10,000 to 15,000 people in attendance. I am guessing they were not selling water bottles or food to make this a more enjoyable experience for those watching. There were no microphones or TV cameras. There were no chairs so the audience had to stand. There were no debate moderators.

In today's debate format, politicians get one or two minutes to answer a question. Lincoln and Douglas agreed on the following format:

  • The first debater would get 60 minutes to state their position.
  • The other debater would get 90 minutes to state their position and do a rebuttal.
  • Then the first debater would get 30 minutes to do a final rebuttal.
  • Yes, you added right - that's 3 hours in total.

This debate format allowed each candidate to make their argument on the issue, to persuade the listeners. In addition, those in the audience watching the debates would often ask questions or make comments while the debater was speaking.

I would encourage you to read up on these debates and even read the Lincoln and Douglas debate transcripts.

Debates of Opposing Views - In Business and Organizations

Business and organizations are not a democracy where the employees get to vote. Debates can play an important role in business strategy, prioritization, key decisions, teamwork, quality and turnaround time. Debates of Opposing Views is a key characteristic in TeamScene® the Teamwork Competency Model for Leadership Teams. The following are the two most common debate formats in a business setting:

  • Option A vs. Option B
  • Argument for the proposed solution vs. the Argument against the proposed solution

Effective debates can result in:

  • Making better decisions and kill bad ones before they become costly
  • Learning by watching or participating in the disagreement - to be better informed about which option should be preferable
  • Ensuring that team members' views are heard - which will only help the team unite behind the decision or game plan even if the way forward is not their preference.

The following are a few examples of successful debates we have observed or facilitated:

  • Annual Strategic Planning Meeting -- Debate to help determine which cross-functional strategic initiatives should be prioritized as the top 5 for the upcoming year. Four cross-functional breakout groups each presented an argument for their recommended top 5 and also had the opportunity to make a case against the top 5's of other breakout groups. The final poll of all 25 participants for the top 5 was mostly adopted by the CEO, COO and CFO.
  • Technology Decision for an IT Leadership Team - Two leadership team members, after an extensive vetting and research process, each presented their recommendation for competing technical computing software solutions for their organization. The entire leadership team then asked questions and provided their views for/against prior to the CIO making the final decision.
  • Peer Review for a Major Project - It is common for major projects to have their project reviewed by knowledgeable peers prior to advancing to the next project phase. It is also quite common to have this be a session where the peers give recommendations or ask challenging questions and then the project team responds later with responses and changes. This specific peer review did a great job of making the peers questions/concerns the start of a productive for/against debate and by the end of the meeting there was more agreement on the priorities that needed to be addressed prior to advancing to the next phase. The project successfully advanced to the next phase.
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Lincoln and Douglas set the standard for formal debates back in the 1850s. I wish the Presidential Debates of today would follow that standard. Businesses and other organizations that leverage the Lincoln and Douglas standards have an opportunity to make their organizations more profitable.

Mike Goodfriend is a teamwork engineer, executive coach, and meeting facilitator. Since 1989, Goodfriend & Associates has been helping leaders and leadership teams increase their strategic advantage through achieving higher levels of competitive advantage, teamwork/alignment, leadership competency and excellence/customer satisfaction. Mike Goodfriend can be reached at 713-789-6840 or via email at mikeg@goodfriendconsulting.com.


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