A Google Insight Into Dissent (Part 2)

When is it right to disagree, and when is it right to jump on board?  We often live in tension between our desire to be approved/accepted by others, and a nagging doubt about an important topic that others seem “sold” on.


This week I am drilling a bit deeper into a few topics that resonated with me as I read the book How Google Works.  This is the second installment of that series.  For part one, go here.

In the past I have written about this tension.  There were two new thoughts that I enjoyed on this topic while reading the book, and I wanted to share them here in the event you’ll find them helpful.

HiPPO.  This is an excellent acronym which takes it’s inspiration from the deadly hippopotamus – and animal that looks slow and sleepy but in fact is fast and dangerous.  In the corporate world, the HiPPO is the “Highest-Paid-Person’s-Opinion”, and is how many decisions are made.  One of Jim Barksdale’s memorable quotes was “If we have data, let’s look at data.  If all we have are opinions, let’s go with mine.”  As the authors quote,”it’s the the quality of the idea that matters, not who suggests it”.

The ability to drive this sort of thinking is hard to do.  The best place to start is if you find yourself as the highest paid person in a discussion.  Tread lightly, and listen.

The word “listen” is a good segue into the next topic, which is character.  Listening is a form of humility, which itself flows from good character.  Another hallmark of good character is honesty, which brings us to the place of tension I referenced earlier.  Quote from the book:

For a meritocracy to work, it needs to engender a culture where there is an “obligation to dissent”.

In the book, there is a footnote that’s attached to that sentence:

“We heard this phrase from Shona Brown, who picked it up from her years at Mckinsey & Company.  McKinsey’s website says it quite well: ‘All McKinsey consultants are obligated to dissent if they believe something is incorrect or not in the best interests of the client.  While you may be hesitant to disagree with the team’s most senior member or the client, you’re expected to share your point of view'”.

I couldn’t have said it better myself.  Of course, once dissent has been raised and explored, there comes a time when discussion is no longer helpful, and a successful outcome requires everyone getting behind the idea (unless there is a deeper ethical issue at play).  At that point, I often fall back upon one of the great lessons I learned from the military:  “disagreement is not disloyalty until after the decision has been made”.

Life is short.  We should do good work and contribute.  During the brief time we have in our careers, we owe it to our co-workers and ourselves to offer dissent when it is constructive and based upon participation in the whole process.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are not constructive, excessively snarky, or off-topic.

  • http://fwhesse.wordpress.com/ Fritz Hesse

    Thanks Mike. As before – interesting post. Two quick thoughts come to mind for me:
    ** First: Have you had a chance to read Susan Cain’s popular 2012 book “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking”? She revealed interesting data about various methods to collect feedback from groups and discussed today’s open office collaboration trends. To summarize in a way, the HiPPO is clearly not always correct.
    ** Second: at Intuit we pushed very hard to have shared vision. This is not consensus – but a mandate to collect input/data, solicit recommendations, make a decision, and make commitment. The POV is that most often what is important is that a decision is made (followed by commitment)…. and not so important is specifically what decision. Dysfunctional organizations tend to debate forever; before, during, and after.

    • http://michaeldiamond.com/ Michael Diamond

      Thanks Fritz. I was not aware of Susan Cain’s book – it will have to be added to my list. Also, thanks for the insight from Intuit. Interestingly, Bill Campbell was warmly cited by the authors as their CEO coach. His impact figures prominently in the success of Google.