Colin Nederkoorn

Things I've learned - Disagree and commit

Make decisions quickly by pushing them down to the people responsible for executing

August 30, 2019

Originally written as an internal post for Customer.io in October 2018. I’ve been practicing disagreeing and committing and love when our teams prove me wrong.

One of the hard things about going from 2 people in a room to 40 people in a company is that I have to accept that for almost anything that is happening in the company, someone else has spent more energy, given more though and more consideration on it than me. Sometimes that means I’m in situations where what someone is recommending goes against the information in my brain. Who is right? Do they see something I don’t? Or does my experience give me insight they haven’t gotten yet.

The lesson I learned is that it doesn’t matter if I’m right. What’s important is that I trust the people on the team to make good decisions. Sure, I want the opportunity to weigh in on decisions we make but once I’ve said my piece either in support or disagreement, it’s time for me to get on board.

I learned about this concept in the book High Output Management by Andy Grove, former CEO of Intel but Disagree and Commit was reinforced by Amazon and a story from the 2016 Shareholder letter in a section on high velocity decision making:

Third, use the phrase “disagree and commit.” This phrase will save a lot of time. If you have conviction on a particular direction even though there’s no consensus, it’s helpful to say, “Look, I know we disagree on this but will you gamble with me on it? Disagree and commit?” By the time you’re at this point, no one can know the answer for sure, and you’ll probably get a quick yes.

This isn’t one way. If you’re the boss, you should do this too. I disagree and commit all the time. We recently greenlit a particular Amazon Studios original. I told the team my view: debatable whether it would be interesting enough, complicated to produce, the business terms aren’t that good, and we have lots of other opportunities. They had a completely different opinion and wanted to go ahead. I wrote back right away with “I disagree and commit and hope it becomes the most watched thing we’ve ever made.” Consider how much slower this decision cycle would have been if the team had actually had to convince me rather than simply get my commitment.

The critical behavior here is committing. It’s easier to find reasons why something might not work than it is to get behind an idea or team and support it wholeheartedly. It takes energy to be positive and lift up your peers. On the flip side, voicing opposition after a decision is made sucks the wind out of everyone’s sails and leaves people feeling drained. I expect that key people in a decision have the opportunity to voice opinions but when the decision maker picks a direction, we support it to give the team working to make it reality the best opportunity to see it through to success.

We have to trust that the people who are closer to it know what they’re doing and that new, better information might invalidate our own assessment of things. That’s how you empower others and trust that good things will happen when you do.