Disagree and Commit - A Management Principle for Highly Functioning Teams

November 10, 2017

Disagree and commit. I first read about this idea in the 2016 Amazon Shareholders letter. But the idea can be traced back to Andy Grove at Intel. Grove wrote about this topic in High Output Management. Disagree and commit is a management technique for handling conflict. There are two parts to it. First, expecting and demanding teammates to voice their disgreement. Second, no matter their point of view, once a decision has been made, everyone commits to its success.

Bezos described it this way:

Have Backbone; Disagree and Commit. “Leaders are obligated to respectfully challenge decisions when they disagree, even when doing so is uncomfortable or exhausting. Leaders have conviction and are tenacious. They do not compromise for the sake of social cohesion. Once a decision is determined, they commit wholly.”

I’ve worked in environments in the past where management clearly communicated the obligation to dissent - and it’s wonderful. The obligation to dissent empowers people to speak their minds freely, leads to more engaged meetings, better discussion and ultimately improved ideas. This is the first half of disagree and commit. It’s Peter Drucker’s creation

But only if the team commits to the idea’s success. The second part is equally as important to the first. Without the full team’s support and effort behind the idea, it won’t achieve its potential. Instead, apathy, confusion and infighting will torpedo the team’s execution. More broadly, and more importantly, morale suffers.

Over the past ten years in venture, sometimes I’ve heard management teams describe particular members of their team as toxic to their culture. Toxic is a broad but barbed word. It describes those who disagree and don’t commit. An employee’s lack of commitment spreads to others, depletes morale and saps the sense of teamwork and common mission to achieve a singular purpose. This works against the interests of the leadership and the company, confounding progress.

Disagree and commit cannot be applied blindly. There are ethical boundaries, regulatory brightlines and values thresholds that can’t be crossed. But for most daily business decisions about strategy, product, marketing, engineering and other teams, disagree and commit is a powerful notion to capitalize upon a startup’s principal advantage in a market: execution speed.

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