Expert Coaching. Practical Resources.

February 4, 2021

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Richard Stringham

Building a Better Airplane

Orville and Wilbur Wright (yes, the chaps credited with inventing the or airplane), were known to have debated each other fiercely on various ideas. What made those debates unusual, and I expect more productive, was the fact that they would change sides in the debate.

Few of us would dispute the need for critical thinking on boards. In practice, this often translates into board members advocating their positions at the board table, with the idea that the most sensible position rules the day. Or does it?

Let’s face it, there can be a myriad of reasons why a typical board discussion might not result in the best of conclusions. Groupthink and the power of louder, more forceful voices are a couple of the obvious ones.

But even in situations where the debate is respectful with both sides airing their views openly and completely, we might still miss out on making the best of the human capital in the room.  Our ability to critically analyze our own viewpoints is limited.

Citing the thoughts of great thinkers of the ages, Nagesh Belludi observes:

Once a belief is added to your collection of viewpoints, you indulge in “intellectual censorship”—you instinctively and unconsciously protect and defend it. You cling to your beliefs instead of objectively reassessing and questioning them. Moreover, owing to confirmation bias, you seek narratives that convey to you what you want to hear, substantiate your beliefs, and entitle you to continue to feel as you already do.

One way to reduce this bias is to do what Orville and Wilbur did: argue the other side.

It’s a good practice for individuals to employ; but how might a board apply it?

Imagine that the board is grappling with a contentious issue. However, instead of just the standard debate process, after some initial discussion in which opposing positions are identified, the chair assigns half the board to argue one position and the other half to argue another. After some debate, the chair asks board members to flip roles and argue the other position.

Following such a process, the board can return to standard debate. In doing so, board members would have a better understanding of the opposing position, as well as a deeper understanding of their own positions, perhaps even making a change in position. Indeed, the board might also identify yet another option which addresses concerns with the decisions proposed by both the previous positions.

It is not a process I would suggest for each and every board decision. And I would expect that the first few times it will feel awkward. Yet boards are expected to make challenging, subjective decisions which reflect the values of their ownership. Such decisions merit a deeper dive and reversing positions could help to facilitate greater depth of exploration. Could it fly? It worked for Orville and Wilbur!

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