Thinking, innovation, and arguing

In the video above, Margaret Heffernan says that organizations cannot think because 85% of CEOs at American and British companies are afraid of conflict. In an article in Fast Company titled “Innovation is about arguing, not brainstorming”, Daniel Sobol wrote

To innovate, we need environments that support imaginative thinking, where we can go through many crazy, tangential, and even bad ideas to come up with good ones. We need to work both collaboratively and individually. We also need a healthy amount of heated discussion, even arguing. We need places where someone can throw out a thought, have it critiqued, and not feel so judged that they become defensive and shut down. 

Unfortunately, argument is viewed negatively within coaching and coaching staffs. I tend to be pretty aggressive and opinionated, and I have no problem arguing. I also have no issue with disagreement.

I had a high-school freshman this season interrupt me in the middle of an explanation to add an idea. I glanced at my assistant, and he could not believe that I listened to a freshmen and did not scream at him for interrupting me. His suggestion was exactly what we were going to do anyway – why get mad? He probably should have waited until I was done with my explanation before trying to add something, but I was kind of excited that he was thinking about things in that way. That’s how I coach – I try to empower players.

Many coaching staffs are created without an environment for argument, and few coaches tend to seek out ideas from players. When coaches are hired, they tend to hire their friends. They are friends because they tend to think similarly about things, which often dulls the opportunity for argument. This is generally looked at as a positive, a group that is cohesive and works well together. However, if nobody is willing to dissent, where do the fresh ideas come from?

Another popular hiring process is to hire former players. Former players are often reluctant to argue with their former coaches (now bosses), and many also learned the game from the coach, so they see the game similarly. Other coaches tend not to like dissent from the staff and believe that the staff need to be a unified team. While this is true in front of the team, behind the scenes, a good staff is one where there can be a healthy amount of heated discussion.

I have been fortunate, when I look back at it, to work for coaches who allowed me to dissent and argue. At the time, I was a young, arrogant coach and that’s all I knew. I did not know any differently than to express my opinion. I felt my position was to help the team win, not to agree with the head coach. In my first two years as an assistant coach over a decade ago, I convinced the head coach to change his/her offensive system. The head coaches had a way of coaching that they had established over several seasons of success, but when I presented an argument that a different attack would benefit the team’s personnel, they listened and acquiesced. They were not offended, and my intention was not to offend. My intention was to win, to use the talent to its maximum.

I believe the coaches had the same desire too; however, I think they suffered from the curse of success. Their system had worked before at other schools, so they tried to fit the new personnel into their successful system. When it did not work, they saw the faults of the players. I saw the same faults, but rather than blame the players for being too small or making bad decisions, I thought about how the system could change to maximize the players. I simply had a different perspective because I did not have a system of my own. In the second instance, I felt that a system similar to what I had used with 9-year-old (Blitz Basketball) would benefit our players at the college level; several weeks after the change, we beat the #5 team in the state. We went from scoring in the 50s and losing to scoring in the high 70s and winning enough to make the play-offs. It wasn’t rocket science, but it would not have happened if the head coach was defensive, stubborn, or unwilling to engage in arguments in her office.

Now, when I talk to other assistants, many feel like the head coaches do not want any dissension: they want coaches to agree with them that their ideas are correct or great. However, what happens when their ideas are not great or the assistant thinks that the head coach is wrong? Without an environment for healthy discussion or debate, who suffers? Usually, the players suffer.

The best leaders, it has been said, are not there to make sure that they are right, but to make the right decision. The right decision is more likely to come from an honest discussion of 2, 4, or 6 people (depending on the size of the staff) rather than from the mind of one.

To facilitate this discussion or argument, Sobol offers five rules:

  1. No hierarchy: “A recent graduate, I was one of the youngest members of the company. During our first session, the principal looked me in the eye and said, “You should know that you’re not doing your job if you don’t disagree with me at least once a day.” He gave me permission to voice my opinion openly, regardless of my seniority. This breakdown of hierarchy creates a space where ideas can be invented– and challenged–without fear,” wrote Sobol.

  2. Say, “No, because…” “No is a critical part of our process, but if you’re going to say no, you better be able to say why. Backing up an argument is integral in any deliberative discourse,” wrote Sobol.

  3. Diverse perspectives

  4. Focus on a common goal: “Argument is productive for us because everyone knows that we’re working toward a shared goal. 

  5. Keep it fun

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