Years ago, I heard an amusing anecdote from an experienced Amazonian regarding the leadership principle of disagree and commit.
She said that she spent years assuming that the phrase “disagree and commit” meant something else. She had assumed that the expectation for leaders was if you have a different opinion, you are supposed to disagree, and commit. Commit as in “I hereby commit to disagree forever!” This is funny, but painfully close to how many people act in the office.
It turns out that what we demand from leaders is the ability to disagree, perhaps strongly if needed. We also expect that when the time is right (which I will talk about later), you commit to the course of chosen course of action. That course of action may be your preference, that may be a different choice. Regardless, you commit to this new direction.
Why should I disagree and commit?
Disagree and commit is not about saying “ok boss!” to an order. This is not about following the chain of command. The core essence of this leadership principle is about productivity and results.
Decisions block the flow of getting things done. Decisions are expensive roadblocks. If you are making a critical choice, you are required to sit at that roadblock until you get the exact right answer. If you are making any other type of decision, any answer now is often better than the right answer tomorrow.
I love analogies. I don't use them enough. Imagine if you had a group of 7 friends, and you wanted to go to a restaurant together. One person wants Chinese food, another is craving pizza, a third thinks Mexican would be great. Everyone has their own opinion.
You'd never eat if you all had to agree. You may have been in that situation where everyone waffled, unable to make up their mind. Yet you understand that this is not desirable. The most important thing is to eat. Less critical is that you pick the perfect restaurant for everyone. So you pick pizza, and move on.
What does commit mean?
This is hard for people to do. There is not a leadership principle named disagree and then reluctantly move forward. When you commit, you need to take that decision as your own.
In my analogy, when a group of friends agrees to grab pizza, what's the proper behavior? Does the fan of Chinese food whine about the choice for the next few hours? Does the girl who wanted tacos repeatedly complain that the pizza doesn't taste as good as the tacos from down the street? I hope you recognize that this would be rude.
The right answer is to demonstrate that you're happy with the group's decision. If you have to say anything, you would reinforce that the group decision is just fine with you. “This is great pizza, thanks for the recommendation, Liza!”
No revisiting decisions.
You cannot bring up the other options again, unless the situation changes. A decision has been made. Decisions are about making progress, so don't make negative progress.
"Hey, I know we decided to remove that feature, but I was thinking again, and I really think it's such a great feature." - No!
No claiming success for failure. You can never say “I told you so”, because the group has made a decision. That decision is now yours. A failure for the group is now a failure for you.
In an interview:
"I told them that we shouldn't build the feature that way, but they wouldn't listen. So I built the feature that way, even though I repeatedly said this was stupid. Sure enough, I was right, it didn't work right, and it was a huge disaster. Hah!"
In this type of example, it is a triple failure on your part. You failed to influence your team to do the right thing. What you built failed. And you failed to own your decision. A huge pile of fail.