The preconditions of thoughtful debate in meritocratic hierarchies

“Holding wrong opinions in one’s head and making bad decisions based on them instead of having thoughtful disagreements is one of the greatest tragedies of mankind.” — Ray Dalio

The evidence shows humans are wired to organize people, objects, and ideas into stacks prioritized from ‘top’ to ‘bottom.’ In the context of human organizations, this biologically wired human behavior gives rise to the canonical Org Chart.

In recent years, we’ve seen experimental departures from the traditional org charts at companies like Medium, Valve, and Zappos. These experiments have lead to generally poor results.

The difference between functional and corrupt hierarchies relates to the types of behaviors required to move upwards within the hierarchy. In startups, meritocratic hierarchies work best. These are distinct from ‘power-based’ hierarchies wherein actors move upwards via social signaling, domineering behavior, and political gamesmanship.

In meritocracies:

  • The best people for the job are actually doing those jobs
  • The group is not subject to endless analysis paralysis

While meritocracies do work, the primary purpose of this article is to draw attention to edge-case activities wherein there is utility in temporarily suspending the underlying meritocratic architecture linking colleagues together. Primarily, it’s advantageous to do so at the fuzzy early stages of brainstorming.

Brainstorming + Hierarchies = Local Maximums

Work over time within an organization is best modeled as a waveform oscillating between periods of ‘doing stuff’ and bursts of ‘considering what to do next.’ While a group is doing stuff, heads are down. Eyes are on screen, butts are in seats, hands are on keys. Each individual in the group understands the macro objective, and understands relevant the set of ‘to-dos’ within their scope of responsibility. This is the section of the waveform that benefits from meritocratic operating systems.

When groups are ‘considering what to do’ the taskmasters will come up for air and convene in a room. Presentations are made, data is collected, sticky notes pollute walls, debate is sparked. It’s in these bursts that hierarchies, even meritocratic ones, must be temporarily suspended. When groups are considering, it is very important that all ideas, regardless of source, are equally heard, understood and respected.

Certainly we’ve all been in brainstorms where we didn’t feel comfortable engaging in thoughtful debate. In such cases, the leader at the top of the meritocratic hierarchy likely failed to foster the preconditions for thoughtful debate to sustainably thrive.

In brainstorming sessions, the leader needs to suspend their place on the totem pole and morph into a diligent steward of the preconditions for thoughtful disagreement. A few key preconditions are:

  • All parties maintain respect of all other parties and their ideas
  • Dissenting opinion is met with consideration, not ostracism
  • No arguments from authority
  • All participants support claims with falsifiable data, not emotional reasoning

When those elements are present, thoughtful debate can emerge. Thoughtful debate, as opposed to feigned consensus or command and control, is what allows teams to find the great options amongst a set of merely good options.

Reinstall structure to make the decision

The final trick of striking a balance between thoughtful debate and objective execution within a meritocratic hierarchy is to reactivate the hierarchy when deciding between the presented options. Here, merit does in fact matter — but to make great decisions with merit you need all the options and perspective presented fairly.

To do this, leaders move from being just a protector of preconditions back into a position of merit based authority. This is the time to mix the ideas presented with past experiences and data to make a merit-weighted call about what direction is best for the team.

It’s important to be transparent and clear about why you are choosing the option that you are. If the plan is to go with the initial opinion you brought to the table, you must address why you still feel that your idea is still the right one.

If your opinion hasn’t changed after a thoughtful debate, you should take pause. Assuming your team has done the work in providing thoughtful analysis, there will almost always be at least minor nuances of a prior plan that need to be altered. In these cases, it’s prudent to pay special attention to highlight the aspect of the plan that has been modified because of the debate. Doing this validates the investment of time in debate, and also promotes bottom-up buy-in to the action plan.

In situations where your opinion was indeed reversed by a debate, credit should be primarily distributed to the actors that best personified the process of thoughtful debate. Emphasis should be placed on how time invested in gathering data, speaking the truth, and arguing viewpoints has lead to a better result for the whole team. Praise individuals who maintained rationality, emotional stability, and clear thinking — especially if the environment was particularly cantankerous. Don’t be fearful that the best idea didn’t come from you, be excited that you and your team are now headed on a better trajectory than you had previously hoped for.

Finally, it’s important to ensure that all participants are prepared to get 100% behind the chosen plan, even if they disagreed with it just moments ago. The worst-case scenario is that a plan’s promise is handicapped by internal saboteurs who work in ways that will ensure the demise of the plan in order to make the decision look stupid. This is especially worrisome behavior, and as a leader action should be taken to weed these types of people out of the organization.

A great way to extinguish possible sabotage before it occurs is to ensure everyone has truly stated their peace on the matter at hand before you skip ahead to the decision making. In discussion, don’t let silence slide. If you spot a quiet team-member who you sense doesn’t agree with the action, directly ask them to share their real views out of respect to their peers and the process.

Pick destinations via open debate. Get there with meritocratic hierarchies

Building a merit based organizational structure that still fosters an open and thoughtful debate can be challenging. It’s also a very powerful and effective way for groups to be organized.

By leveraging the instinctual power of hierarchies to accomplish objectives while using thoughtful debate to ensure your goals are in fact the right ones, your organization can both maximize the speed and optimize the direction of its collective efforts.