7 ways to argue constructively



Debate and argument fills a vital role in all parts of our lives, it is what makes us human, this capacity to be able to think and communicate, rather than just react.

For an extended period with two different employers, I reported as marketing manager to a bloke with whom over time I developed a rapport that enabled us to achieve some great things, creative and commercial. We won awards, opened some new markets and redefined others, and importantly, delivered market share, brand credibility and profits to the employers.

Reflecting on the experience, now a long time ago, it seemed to me that there were 7 factors at work:

  1. Play devils advocate. We seemed to just  fall into this habit of taking the opposite view of the one expressed, to debate the point by seeking the holes in the data, logic, and assumptions, irrespective of our own starting point. We usually ended up somewhere other than either of our respective starting points.
  2. Never allow authority to override  or diminish the views of others. At no time during a debate was my view overridden by his organisational authority. From time to time after the debate was over, with some level of disagreement still present, he had to make a decision contrary to my expressed position. However, when those occasions arose, I was happy to go along, and execute he decision, as the process we had gone through was thorough, and my views had been listed to, and taken into account prior to the decision. Some form of “due process” had occurred.
  3. Recognise when you are wrong, and be very open about it. What more needs to be said? Very few things build respect quicker than someone being able to concede that they were wrong, and respect is vital for an open, non personal debate.
  4. Encourage absolutely open communication. This requires lots of trust, and goes with the point above, as respect is a vial element in trust. It is behaviour that engenders trust, not words. People watch the behaviour of others, and over time make a judgement about the level of trust they are prepared to offer. Trust is hard won, but easily lost.
  5. Openly question the foundations and logic of your own position. Being prepared to not just have others question your position, but being prepared to shoot your own scared cows, and we all have them, enables others to do the same thing with confidence that the commentary is never personal, and is welcome.
  6. Be prepared to enable, more than just allow, projects and ideas you disagree with to proceed. From time to time, when a project is allowed to proceed that may fail, and the “boss” thinks failure is likely,  but gets behind it the impact on the creative energy is enormous. I recall one project that would completely disrupt the category the launch was aimed at, was allowed to proceed on the basis of  my instinct. We had done lots of research, tested to the wahzoo, but this was a genuine innovation, something consumers had not seen, so asking them what they thought was encouraging but inconclusive, as they had no actual context against which the idea could be judged. There was considerable capital investment involved, and the “boss” went in aggressively to bat for the project, whist quietly being less than convinced. For an organisational subordinate to have that level of support is enormously empowering. Luckily, the launch was an enormous strategic and financial success.
  7. Be prepared for failure, but be determined to learn from it. We learn more from than we do from or  success, so being prepared to experiment, adjust assumptions and try again is fundamental to learning. As part of the preparation for the launch referred to above, I had a range of plans prepared that would ensure that in the event of failure, the financial losses would be outweighed by the organisational learning that occurred. This was just good prudential management practise, and fortunately those plans were not necessary.

An unusually long post this morning, glad you go this far. It was triggered by a post I read earlier in which Ed Catmull, CEO of Pixar reflected on the reasons for his creative  success. Many were reminiscent  of mine, and his notion of a “brainstrust” is extremely attractive.

Such is the source of blog post ideas, a spark, combined with personal experience. This answers one of the questions I am often asked as I continue to find stuff sufficiently interesting to me, and hopefully to a few others, to post.



About strategyaudit

StrategyAudit is a boutique strategy and marketing consultancy concentrating on the challenges of the medium sized manufacturing businesses that make up the backbone of our economy. The particular focus is on their strategic and marketing development. as well as the business and operational efficiency improvements necessary for day to day commercial survival. We not only give advice, we go down "into the weeds" to ensure and enable implementation.
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