retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

When I attended retired General Michael Hayden’s presentation at the recent National Grocers Association (NGA) convention, I expected to hear some insights about his past work on national security. And I did.

What I didn’t expect was a perfect example of how business leaders need to push out of the box to confront today’s challenges.

But I got that, too.

I was fortunate to get a copy of Hayden’s book, “Playing to the Edge,” and that’s where I found this amazing insight. It came in what must have been a painful passage to write, about the mistakes the intelligence community made in identifying Iraq as the holder of weapons of mass destruction. As Hayden admits in the book, it was a gigantic mistake leading to a false premise for the Iraq invasion.

Forget your politics for a second or your feelings about that war and consider his words about how the decision was made. Hayden likened it to another historical error - from the battle of Antietam during the Civil War. In that case, as with the WMD report, the mistakes weren’t due to wickedness or dishonesty. Rather they came about from people holding similar opinions not questioning each other enough.

Hayden wrote: “When the intelligence is making a policy maker too happy, he ought to challenge it and when he doesn’t, the intelligence briefer needs to launch a red team against his own conclusions to see if they can stand their ground.”

In other words, it’s incredibly important to seek out those with contradictory opinions to challenge decision makers to consider the possibility that they are wrong. This is a message we’ve talked about often here on MNB and it’s more important than ever.

Consider how many times I’ve written about the work I recently did with the Coca-Cola Retailing Research Council on surviving the new challenges of the marketplace. That work comes with a diagnostic - in essence, a series of questions for retailers to ask themselves about numerous emerging aspects of the business.

One of the suggestions I give groups using the study is to solicit diverse opinions about those questions. For example, a group of 55-year-old executives might have a common viewpoint on how well their company is approaching digital engagement. They could be right, but inviting in some 20-something associates to discuss the same question might produce wildly different opinions. And that’s a very good thing.

Sure it will make for a messier discussion, but that’s a good mess. It might lead to a better understanding of issues that in turn leads to a better solution, better use of resources and better results.

As Hayden’s example makes clear, dissenting voices are more than important. They are essential. But in many cases they need to be cultivated, especially if it requires getting associates to challenge their superiors in an organization.

An echo chamber may make you feel better about your own knowledge (and we are all guilty of that) but it might not make you smarter. Dissenters can do that.

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at . His book, “THE BIG PICTURE: Essential Business Lessons From The Movies,” co-authored with Kevin Coupe, is available on Amazon by clicking here. And, his book "Business Rules!" is available from Amazon by clicking here.
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