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Effective team and devil's advocate

Only after being heated and hammered, a Japanese sword has a razor sharp cutting edge with the ability to absorb shock in a way which reduces the possibility of the blade breaking when used in combat.

Be open and have hard conversations to achieve great things together

About a week ago, one of the product managers at FiveStars shared Sheryl Sandberg's post to Quora. It was her answer to the question "How does one build a great company culture across several locations in different timezones?" 1. She started her answer by writing,

Facebook’s culture reflects our mission to make the world more open and connected. “Be open” has been one of our core values since the beginning. Our openness sets us apart and helps us move fast.

In order to get the work done and maintain its culture, Sandberg said the people at Facebook have hard conversations, use their own product, and remind themselves that their journey is only 1% done.

When I read this, I recalled a TED talk by Margaret Heffernan that I watched earlier this year. It is titled “Dare to disagree”.

In the talk, Heffernan told the story of Alice Stewart who discovered that pregnant women's exposure to x-rays could cause cancer of the children. Since the publication of the preliminary findings in 1956, Stewart had to fight for 25 years before British and American medical establishments abandoned the practice of X-raying pregnant women. Heffernan asks, "So, how did she know that she was right?" She continues, "Well, she had a fantastic model for thinking." Stewart's colleague statistician George Kneale actively sought disconfirmation of her hypothesis through "different ways of looking at her models, at her statistics, different ways of crunching the data in order to disprove her." Despite the big personality difference, they worked closely together until finally Kneale failed to prove that she was wrong.

"It's a fantastic model of collaboration -- thinking partners who aren't echo chambers. I wonder how many of us have, or dare to have, such collaborators. Alice and George were very good at conflict. They saw it as thinking." When Heffernan said that, I had to stop the video and think for a moment if my colleagues and friends are holding back their honest critisms to the ideas I share just to be nice. I appreciate their friendship but I need to ask them more than saying "good job" or "great idea" in order to forge my thoughts like a Japanese sword hammered and heated by a master.

How to have hard conversations when everybody is so...nice

Then I watched a video of the conversation between Reid Hoffmann and Michael Dearing in the lecture series CS183C Blizscaling at Stanford University2. They talked about how to use devil’s advocate to get the real feedback to your startup idea (The part is at 33m 18s in the embedded video below or follow this link:

Hoffmann asks Dearing, "What are the indicators you would use for checking the idea?" Dearing's first answer is to allocate a chunk of time in schedule to exercise devil's advocate. "every big idea is going to be subjected to a devil's advocate case. And somebody, probably the smartest person he could find is gonna be in charge of trying to destroy your idea", he suggests. Clearly assinging the devil's advocate role, the person in charge can address any flaws in the idea without holding back. Another idea he showed is so-called "pre-mortem". "Let's admit now that we failed. And let's forecast what it is that would have gone wrong to cause our death." Dearing suggests this exercise for listing the deadly risks upfront so that we have clear prevention or mitigation plans.

Dearing's approach sounds great to me especially because I am surrounded by decent friends and colleagues who are usually too nice to say brutal things to me. At work, Dearing's tactics may work to avoid "groupthink", the tendency of groups to go astray. In an article titled "Making Dumb Groups Smarter" in Harvard Business Review3, Professor Cass R. Sunstein at Harvard Law School describes the big reasons for groups failing to achieve the storied wisdom of crowds:

The two main reasons for error are informational signals (some group members receive incorrect signals from other members) and reputational pressures (people silence themselves or change their views to avoid serious penalties) These two factors lead to four separate but interrelated problems: (1) Groups don’t merely fail to correct their members’ errors; they amplifythem. (2) They fall victim to cascade effects, following the statements and actions of those who went first. (3) They become polarized, taking even more-extreme positions than originally. (4) They focus on “what everybody knows,” ignoring critical information that only one or two members have.

At the end of the article, Sunstein shares tactics to avoid faulty informational signals and reputational pressures getting in the way. Appoiniting a devil's advocate is one of them.

Don't let the real devil take over

This year, Amazon's workplace culture caught a big media attention when New York Times published an article "Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace". In the article, I learned that Amzon is practicing exactly what Dearing and Sunstein suggested. Amazon's one of the 14 leadership principles is "Have Backbone; Disagree and Commit". On the company web page4, it explains what it means:

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.

The anecdotes in the article left me an impression that the employees generally feel the co-workers are very smart and are determined to get the work done. As a customer, it is also believable to me that the rigorous scrutinization of each idea is source of their dominating power against other retail competitors. However, the story also suggests that their energy is often spent to rip every idea and sabotaging each others instead of delivering values to customers. I love using Amazon's service, but I definitely refuse to work there if the anecdotes in the article reflect the general atmosphere of Amazon's workplace. If more people feel like me, Amazon's culture may fail to attract and retain talents. It may fall short of "Hire and Develop The Best", another one of thier leadership principles.

Sunstein defends Amazon by saying that the brutal features of culture at Amazon described in the article should be taken with many grains of salt and he praised Amazon for its "indispensable guidance for companies both large and small when they are deciding how to make group decisions."5

Sewing the seed of authentic relationship

How can we encourage disagreement without turning it as internal conflict and disrespect? The question came out naturally as I finished writing the previous paragraph. Luckily, I actually don't have to worry too much about it in my team.

Authentic relationship is one of FiveStars's company values. It is amazing to see the value is witnessed everyday in every part of the company especially after the company grew to have over 300 employees in many offices in different time zones. Because of the authenticity we have to each other, I am very comfortable introducing devil's advocate as a framework to encourage being critical to each idea. After every heated debate, I can see my colleagues prefer to conclude the meeting with actionable items and commit themselves to achieve the shared goal. We jokingly shared the article of "How to make sure nothing gets done at work" on Fortune6 as the exact anti-pattern of ourselves.

What was the source of this great culture we have? I've seen the co-funders Victor (CEO) and Matt (CTO) both in good times and in tough times since the company was too small for them to hide away from us (be it a single apartment in Sunnyvale or a single-room warehouse office in Mountain View). There were moments I felt the company was under tremendous pressures, but I never had a moment that I doubted the friendship between the two. The rest of us learned through the co-founders' attitude and care for each other. So we made sure that we strived to build the same authentic relationship whenever a new member joined the team.

FiveStars has the modern management practices such as objective key results7 to ensure everybody is working towards the common goal instead of pulling each other's leg. It keeps the organization flat and communicating fast across the functions with the cutting edge tools like Slack8 instead of email. But the tools and best practices would not be effective at all without the great authentic relationship culture.

Sandberg said, "openness sets us apart and helps us move fast". In FiveStars case, openness isn't a gesture from management to the employees. It is rather the threads of one to one relationships being woven to the whole fabric.

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Original post: Dec. 23, 2015 | Last updated: Dec. 24, 2015

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