Comfortable with Uncomfortable Debate

Whichever label we give it, fundamentally what our clients value from the Laing Russell team is the delivery of beneficial change, done right. Changing digital technology, systems, business process, operating model or structure and changing behaviours to deliver sustained value for organisations. Recent work has reinforced for us that a critical part of doing change right, is being the catalyst for and the guide through uncomfortable debate for clients. Working with you to get more comfortable with uncomfortable debate.

Most of us don’t like conflict and very few of us like open confrontation. Consequently, we develop strategies for avoiding both. We ask for some more data, we close down debate as things get emotionally charged, we take issues ‘off-line’ etc. And yet it is in confronting the world as it is, accepting truths, no matter how uncomfortable, that organisations and leaders can make real progress – can deliver change, right.

Business conversations tend to take place in what Cliff Bowman, Professor at Cranfield School of Management labels the Zone of Comfortable Debate. Typically, when working with our colleagues we  operate in that comfort zone of rational, dispassionate debate, using our well-developed technical skills to solve specific problems. But, all too often, there are critical issue that are not discussed –  sometimes labelled the ‘elephant in the room. It was Cliff Bowman’s conclusion from his research and our experience that identifying and addressing these critical issues is were good strategy, where both direction and commitment to substantive, beneficial change is made. Bowman called the place where the real issues are confronted and worked through the Zone of Uncomfortable Debate or ZOUD!

And like so many things the ZOUD is not a new idea. We value the combination of the idea of the ZOUD when it is integrated with the inclusion of the shared support and commitment for a goal or objective. The 18th century Scottish philosopher words – ‘truth springs from argument amongst friends’ sums up a guiding thought for our work with clients. We work with you to identify and focus on the critical issues that will not go away. And we pay attention to developing and building the shared commitment – the ‘friendship in Hume’s words. We will work with you to hold the tension that we all feel as we enter the ZOUD and work through to a strategy and plan that you can commit to and deliver. Sticking with and working through the discomfort that goes with it, can and does achieve great results.

So, next time you are in a strategy workshop, review meeting, 1:1 with one of your team or any situation where you get that nagging feeling that you are skirting around the issue, avoiding uncomfortable debate, ask yourself a couple of questions:

  • What’s the subject we are avoiding talking about?
  • What are we pretending not to know?

And do something. Perhaps comment that you get a sense that you might not be talking about the critical issues, maybe invite your colleagues if they share your intuition. Reminding or introducing the idea of the ZOUD could help position the discussion. We will often put a slide with picture of David Hume at the start of a workshop deck to prompt an explicit ‘ways of working’ conversation. The image provides the opportunity to introduce and remind us all of the concept and the value of uncomfortable debate. It also provides a useful reference point to encourage truth telling and productive, perhaps uncomfortable debate.