Is there a strategist’s duty to disagree?

When (and how) dissent is due

Yes. If you accept the adage that ‘none of us is as smart as all of us,’ then competitive argument and constructive criticism is essentially the only way an organization grows and succeeds.

Let’s start with some ground rules. It’s not helpful to have bickering within the chain of command. That sort of infighting hurts rather than helps. It stops decisions from being made and implemented.

This ‘duty to disagree’ has two criteria for appropriateness: first, a time—only before a firm, final decision is made. Second, a temperament—only respectfully and objectively. Professionals should only disagree when timing and temperament are appropriate.

When does this ‘duty to disagree’ end? Dissent ends when the decision-maker has made the final decision and the organization has moved from the choice phase to execution phase. This is the step when challenges lurk—if the disagreement creates too much friction, it may harm the organization’s unity and may slow the process from decision to execution.

But the upside is a better end product, and we need wiser choices much more than we need faster function. Wisdom beats speed. 

Now, some might say that organizations grow through individual reflection, which is only partly right. Sure, all organizations demand reflective practitioners’ that experience, reflect, learn, and then improve. But reflection works best on the individual level. An army of one. So it’s narrow.

More important, we’re all different. So we have this crazy ability to see the exact same action, event, or activity—and then come away with completely different interpretations.

These interpretations and ideas collide at some point, to arrive at some consensus, which is the consensus that large organizations require to act in unison to achieve objectives.

To create faith in this consensus, there must be widespread belief that the best idea will succeed. The way to engender that faith is through an open debate (where the best idea wins) which precedes a final decision.

The ‘duty to disagree’ is, of course, very similar to the book World War Z’s “tenth man” rule. 

The “tenth man” exceeds what I’ve described and requires that ten percent of staff officers take the ‘red team’ position to counter an otherwise unanimous choice. It’s a good rule-of-thumb and complements the ‘duty to disagree’, which is a more general, ongoing commitment to personal disagreement when there’s grounds for opposition to current thinking.

I’ve heard it said that both newly promoted CEOs and generals shouldn’t expect to hear the truth ever again. If that saying were accurate, that’d be a tragedy. Because if anyone in America needs to hear some hard truth, it’s CEOs and general officers. A culture that encourages a ‘duty to disagree’ could draw some of those hard truths out.