You walk into the conference room for a meeting with your leadership team. This meeting has been planned for two weeks. The meeting will be 2 hours long. The purpose of the meeting is to debate whether to discontinue the products and services in the Varkonne line of business (LOB). Jan, the VP of Marketing, will present the case for discontinuation of the Varkonne LOB (line of business). George, the VP of Production will present the case for continuing and enhancing the Varkonne line of business. You and the other team members were instructed to prepare for this meeting by gathering information, facts and specific alternatives from either inside or outside sources to support your views on this question.

You have been nervous about this meeting since these leadership team meetings to make big decisions have not been very productive:

  • A lot of time is wasted in the beginning being "political" -- to avoid starting an argument
  • When members express their views, there is too much opinion and not enough facts
  • There is too much discussion about what is wrong with the view of another team member instead of focusing on what could be possible
  • Later in the meeting, when you get to the real issues that members disagree on, discussions often turn into arguments that become personal
  • Some team members don't express their view or position during the meeting - preferring to express those views one-on-one after the meeting to a select few
  • A decision gets made at the end of the meeting because those that are the most vocal will say there is a consensus (when there isn't)

(Does this sound familiar, maybe like a current or past team you have been a member of?)

You are the first to arrive in the conference room. There is a copy of the meeting agenda for everyone. When everyone arrives, Paul, the CEO, quickly introduces the meeting objective - "to debate the opposing views around whether we continue or discontinue the Varkonne LOB. Our profits are down and our revenues are flat so we need to challenge our thinking for our strategy." He also stated emphatically, "No decision will be made today." He summed up the agenda this way, "Jan will present the case for discontinuing the Varkonne LOB and George will then present the case for continuing the line of business and enhancing it. Then we will ask questions, share our views, provide our own facts and listen to other views. Finally, we will summarize what we learned and discuss next steps."

You are becoming more uneasy since you know Jan and George's working relationship is poor and you believe that the company is at a disadvantage in the marketplace because of that relationship. Both Jan and George had 20 minutes to present their case -- uninterrupted. You and the other team members were not allowed to ask any questions, provide additional information or provide critique.

Jan presented an outstanding case with data on the Varkonne LOB sales and profit for the last 5 years. She showed a chart of declining results moving from profitable to unprofitable over the last 5 years. She also presented similar trends based on research of competitors' similar results of products/services as well as declines in demand in the broader market for these types of solutions. George also presented a good case for continuing and enhancing the Varkonne line of business. He showed the schematic of the custom-designed machines in the production facility, the highly productive machine up-time statistics and the increasing revenue and profits for the maintenance and repair services business. But then George, in a condescending tone, said, "Jan, once again you are unfortunately only telling part of the story around market demand. Maybe you would draw a different conclusion if you knew more about the Varkonne products and services." You saw Jan lean forward in her chair like she was a cougar ready to leap and attack George. But she remained quiet as George continued. George then said he believes the rate of decline in demand is no more than the broader industry in this recession and to discontinue it now would be short-sighted considering our investment in machinery and equipment. His rebuttal was passionate.

Once George finished, you wanted to be first to ask him what the opportunities were to streamline the production process but Paul cut you off almost immediately after you opened your mouth, "We will now have an hour to ask questions, present additional information/facts and challenge the conclusions drawn. I want to make sure we consider the following questions also:"

1. What actions could be taken to increase our market share in this down market?

2. What would an estimate of the shutdown costs be, including the tax impact?

3. If we decide to discontinue the Varkonne LOB, what would be our options for investing in more profitable lines of business?

Once Paul finished, you continued the question you started regarding streamlining but you were cut off once again. This time it was Jan who clearly was fuming about George's earlier statement about her, "George, your statement about me was a cheap shot. I didn't discuss the possible recessionary impact because I believe the trends started before the recession. I wish I could always be like you and always be right."

Paul then intervened, "This is starting to get personal. Let's get back to the issue and the strength of the arguments for and against discontinuation." He then turned to you and asked you to continue the question you have not been able to ask.

George interrupted you again and said, "Sorry but I have to jump in. Jan, I will admit that I have been frustrated with you because you have never taken the time to learn about the Varkonne products and what is really unique about how those products help for our customers. Unfortunately for me, what you said about me acting like I am always right about everything hits close to home for me. My wife and brother separately used almost the exact same words when they were frustrated with me about some things. It is not my intention to act like I know everything. It is something I need to work on so I am sorry for coming across the way I do."

You then jump in, "Coming to work today has now been well worth it, just to hear George admit that maybe he doesn't know everything (everyone laughed). But can I finally ask my question?"

The next 30 minutes of discussion was extremely productive. In addition to discussing Paul's questions and your question (that you were finally able to ask), different people shared a lot of relevant facts and data. Also, the team took some time to brainstorm some other unconventional solutions. Rich, the VP of Sales, had a lot of passion (from his discussions with customers) about growing the Varkonne services revenue by offering maintenance/repair services for products sold by other companies.

When there was 15 minutes left in the meeting, Paul stopped the discussion and asked what the team learned. Here are a few of the comments that people made:

You: "I learned that it is hard to get a word in edge-wise with this group. Seriously, I learned more about the market and our competitors related to Varkonne."

George: "I liked Rich's new thinking about how to enhance the revenue stream for the Varkonne market. Oh, and Jan, my wife will enjoy giving you a call so both of you can have some fun at my expense."

Rich: "I thought this was going to be a waste of time. I wasn't very confident in my idea to grow services revenue until brainstorming it with all of you."

Jan: "George, I learned that you have a conscience. Seriously, I am sorry that I hadn't shared my frustrations with you privately before this. Please have your wife call me. I would like to coordinate having you and her come over to our house for dinner for some of my husband's famous ribs on the 'barbee.'"

Paul closed the meeting by saying, "Great meeting. It looks like I wasn't the only one that learned a lot. Just to clarify, the decision to discontinue the LOB is mine and mine alone. I can tell you that I have heard a lot of great cases being made. I may need to do a bit more due diligence before I make the decision so be ready for me to pop in for your thoughts. I intend to make that decision within the next two weeks and I will call a meeting with all of you to announce the decision and develop a plan forward either way. Until my decision is announced, this issue is not to be discussed with anyone other than those in this room. Thanks for your time."


The meeting described above is a great example of how a leadership team can utilize debate methods to make better decisions and drive the team to be more united in their plan forward. Maybe your team has discussions like that. Or maybe your team has discussions that start like that but don't end on the positive note that this one did.

In past issues of Goodfriend Insights and the Goodfriend Report, I have shared with you that I developed TeamScene - A Teamwork Competency Model for Leadership Teams. The Model was designed to help leadership teams interrupt those unproductive patterns in the way they work together and provide the tools to help the team deliver sustainable improvements in business results. Please email me if you would like a copy of the TeamScene Model.

One of the TeamScene Competencies is "DEBATE Opposing Views." A leadership team that is effective (competent) at having productive debates of opposing views is more likely to:

  • Make better business decisions
  • Develop breakthrough ideas and solutions
  • Be more "united" as a team in the planning and execution

The following are my top 10 tips for having a productive debate of opposing views:

Tip #1: Be Clear About the Relevant Business Goals and Outcomes

Any debate should keep the relevant business goals, strategy and outcomes in mind. A debate needs to be anchored in the business objectives to keep it from getting off track from its original purpose.

Tip #2: Learn More About Debate Methods From Lincoln and Douglas

Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas had a series of 7 debates in 1858 for the Illinois U.S. Senate seat. Read the Lincoln-Douglas Debate Transcripts (including audience reactions) if you would like to learn about these historic debates about the issues of slavery and keeping the United States as one country. You can also learn about the Lincoln-Douglas Debate Format (look under "Format" heading) if you are interested in how this process can be generally applied for debate in a business setting.

Tip #3: Ethically Persuade With Facts and Data

Making a case with the use of facts, interviews, surveys, measures/metrics, etc. can help make your opinions/views more supported by the real situation on the ground. It is important to have a conscience and to provide facts/data in an ethical manner. It is important not to "cherry pick" the facts/measures that make your case while also leaving out facts/data that would harm your case. The process of debate will also be more productive if the company or team has access to a robust system of metrics and team performance measures.

Tip #4: Learn From the Opposing View

Typically, team members are preparing their response to each other without really listening to the merits of the opposing view. Learning starts with listening. Listening to the opposing view may help you validate your idea, prepare your rebuttal, learn that the opposing view is a better idea or think of another alternative.

Tip #5: Strengthen Trust and Working Relationships Within the Leadership Team

It is difficult to have a productive debate when team members do not trust that the intentions of one another are not in the best interests of the team. I believe working relationship issues such as this need to be addressed urgently since there is likely a hidden business impact on their shared business outcomes/results (sales growth, operating costs, quality/customer satisfaction, etc.)

When I am asked to intervene with team member working relationship challenges, it becomes very apparent that members don't believe that they will ever trust the other person. It becomes easier to try to avoid the problem than to confront it. However, by addressing the issue "head-on," I have seen the relationship become stronger and their shared results improve. It also reduces their defensiveness with each other and can make disagreements more productive (since differences aren't taken personally).

Tip #6: Allocate Time and Plan For Debates

A leadership team cannot and doesn't want to debate all issues. A debate is an investment of time to hear different points of view (and facts/data) from one another about how to address a key business issue. It is an opportunity to persuade one another and to be persuaded to adopt a different point of view. A leadership team's time is valuable so a process is needed to prioritize issues to be debated and to plan/prepare the process for the debate.

Tip #7: Avoid Making Decisions on the Day of the Debate

Debates are about presenting your views, listening to the views of others, presenting rebuttals and learning from the presentations/discussion. The more focus on making a decision, the more closed the participants become about learning about the merits of opposing views and the less likely a third or fourth alternative will be considered. It is important to be clear about the process for making a decision but keep that separate from the debate itself.

Tip #8: Solicit Views From Reluctant Participants

Some participants are more naturally assertive and vocal within a group meeting. Sometimes they can dominate the meeting. Others are more reluctant to participate if the meeting gets confrontational. They may be more willing to share their views if they are asked. It is important to be aware of those reluctant participants and to ask them directly for their view.

Tip #9: Encourage Unconventional Ideas and Breakthrough Thinking

Breakthrough thinking starts with unconventional ideas. Some groups, in the name of having fun, will ridicule unconventional ideas. People with those unconventional ideas know that the chance of those ideas being accepted are already low because of the natural resistance in organizations to unconventional change. So if they see that ridicule is likely, they will keep some of those ideas to themselves and an opportunity to breakthrough will be lost.

Tip #10: Laugh About Your Disagreements Afterwards

Emerging from a passionate disagreement feels a lot like you escaped a disaster. There is often some humor in the process if you can let yourself laugh about it.

*      *      *

Having a debate of opposing views on important business issues is a competency that a team has to learn together. Margaret Thatchers, the former prime minister of Great Britain had these thoughts about debate, "I love argument, I love debate. I don't expect anyone just to sit there and agree with me, that's not their job."

© Michael R. Goodfriend, Goodfriend & Associates, Inc., 2011

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