The Best Idea Doesn't Always Win

In many corporate cultures, the validity of any idea is often dependent on the authority level of the person who said it.

The best idea doesn’t win. The idea that came from the boss’s mouth is the one that wins.

The problem is that sometimes the boss is wrong.

This is one reason why one of McKinsey’s values is the “obligation to dissent.”

If you’re a first-year consultant and you hear the Senior Director say something incorrect during a team meeting, it is your obligation to disagree with him or her.

The premise is simple. Whatever idea is in the best interest of the client should win, regardless of who said it.

I think McKinsey was and continues to be wise in encouraging this obligation to dissent.

Without this explicit obligation, there are just too many natural incentives to tell powerful people that they are right.

To get the best ideas, you must craft an environment in which your thinking can be critically challenged.

These same natural incentives exist in U.S. Military culture as well.

One of my former ex-Army colleagues explained to me that the Army has a practice where the least experienced soldier gives his opinion first, while the General gives her opinion last.

The reason for this is if the General speaks first, the natural incentive is for everyone else to agree with the General. Nobody ever got fired, disciplined, or reprimanded for agreeing with the person who has power over you.

I thought this practice of the senior person speaking last was a clever way to counter these natural incentives.

The wisest people surround themselves with people who will disagree with them.

This is an especially difficult challenge for smart, ambitious, driven people. When you are super smart, it’s quite difficult to find people who are capable of disagreeing with you (and are correct in doing so).

Anyone can be argumentative. I’m not talking about that.

I’m talking about disagreeing with you in a way that’s deeply insightful, thoughtful, and constructive.

The smarter and more knowledgable you become, the harder it is to find such people.

One thing smart people do is find mentors. Mentors are people with a set of life and career experiences different than your own.

I’ve written previously about one of my mentors. He was an executive who built a company from ten to 10,000+ employees within ten years. He built a Fortune 500 company from ten employees.

We shared an office together for six months. He was an investor in the company and stepped in temporarily to be interim Chief Operating Officer. I always thought of him as a great mentor. He was constantly teaching me new things — often by disagreeing with me.

When he left the company, he thanked ME for mentoring HIM. I remember being confused.

I remember saying, “What do you mean? I’m just a 24-year-old kid. You’re the one who built a Fortune 500 company from ten employees."

He said that I taught him a lot about the Internet (this was during the dot com boom of 1999) and that I disagreed with him constantly. On the latter, he said it was hard to get an honest opinion from people around him.

He had gotten so high-powered, apparently nobody wanted to risk disagreeing with him... except for me.

We disagreed (constructively) on so many things.

In the end, we ended up making better decisions than would have been made if only one of us was making the decision alone.

Looking back, both of us (and the company) were better off for our mutual mentorship relationship.

I learned a lot from him mentoring me.

He learned a lot from me mentoring him.

My thought of the day is this:

Who is mentoring you?

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