Why management by consensus is killing innovation

One management issue that could be killing innovation efforts is an obsession by many managers that a decision can

In a Vogue magazine article in 1958, Sir Alec Issigonis and University of Wisconsin philosophy professor Lester Hunt are credited with the expression, “A camel is a horse designed by a committee.” One management issue that could be killing innovation efforts is an obsession by many managers that a decision can’t be reached unless a team of people comes to agreement.

Teamwork and collaboration are increasingly important in uncovering root causes of business issues, providing insights into locating opportunity areas, and creating a range of potential solutions or new offerings. It seems, however, that there is a preoccupation by managers of wanting everyone to get along, to come to agreement and alignment. This is the direct opposite of what is needed to generate creative new thoughts and concepts.

People on teams don’t need to be nasty to one another, but there needs to be a healthy amount of disagreement and alternative thoughts to expand the solution area and expand the possibilities of “what could be.” Alfred Sloan of the “old GM” insisted that if his key managers came to agreement too quickly, or came to agreement at all, that they defer making a decision until a higher level of conflicting views were offered to the discussion.

There are two issues that seem to contribute heavily to the current state of “can’t we all get along” management. First, people are engaged in win-lose competition with one another on a team. If a suggestion or idea is posed, other team members will jump on the person making the suggestion in order to discredit him or her rather than looking at the idea itself.

Secondly, people don’t want to “rock the boat” and tend to look for ways to comply with a higher-level manager rather than seek novel approaches. Managers are not trained to look at conflict as a positive state, but without conflicting ideas all that is offered to customers are stale and uninspired offerings. In order to develop an innovative organization, there must be a feeling of freedom to explore possibilities without worrying about retribution from above or below. While human competition will not go away anytime soon, this tendency should be harnessed in more productive ways in order to create better customer-oriented offerings.

People behave in ways that rewarded their behavior. By encouraging and rewarding teams to argue, to challenge, and to experiment, an organization will develop a wider portfolio of options to review for investment. Increased organic growth requires a move away from the status quo, and moving away from the status quo requires conflict and competition rather than consensus.

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