Stimulating disagreement produces better solutions

When I create workshops there is a type of activity that’s common to many of them, which is people writing ideas on sticky notes and then putting them into categories. Usually when we reach that part I ask people to read out what’s on the sticky note and then invite others to guess which category it should be in.

This “guess the category” part has always seemed important to me, and it never fails to provoke debate, but I’ve often struggled to explain why I do it that way. Why don’t I favour people just reading out their sticky notes and saying where they should go? I’ve usually said something about making sure people are paying attention and not passively accepting what others say, and maybe something about encouraging discussion. It has made for lively conversations and the workshops have been successful, but I’ve struggled to explain why.

However, I’ve understood better since reading Ian Leslie’s “Conflicted: Why arguments are tearing us apart and how they can bring us together.” By creating an environment where people can take opposing views and argue we are helping them find better solutions. Positions are tested, weaknesses exposed, alternatives are weighed, and eventually we find better outcomes that withstand greater scrutiny. For the workshop it’s not about being provocative—by inviting people to take a position and then (maybe) finding disagreement we are testing each others’ ideas.

Of course, Ian Leslie is at pains to stress that argument by itself does not produce better solutions. The environment has to right, and it’s too easy to find an argument against a position turning into an attack (perceived or real) on the individual. When a team gathers for a workshop on an agreed topic it’s generally suitably safe. Other situations require more care.

Photo by Holly