Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Managing Debate in an Organization

In Bringing Science to The Art of Strategy, Lafley, Martin, Rivkin, and Siggelkow describe (1) a possibilities-based approach to strategy development and (2) P&G's transformation of Olay in the newly-created "masstige" segment. Several weeks ago, I recounted Roger Martin and A.G. Lafley’s “Playing to Win”—a book recounting P&G’s strategy during Lafley’s tenure as CEO. I want to again provide some exposition related P&G's process, as told in "Playing to Win."

Specifically, in this week's readings, the authors note "you also need an imaginative yet grounded team and a robust process for managing debate" (Lafley, Martin, Rivkin, & Siggelkow, 2012, p. 5). Lafley and Martin describe this debate style in their book as assertive inquiry. Assertive inquiry represents a "reasonably straightforward but traditionally underused [stance]: 'I have a view worth hearing, but I may be missing something'" (Lafley & Martin, 2013, p. 136). By framing the debate this way, two important things happen to the advocate (Lafley & Martin, 2013, p. 137): (1) "they advocate their view as a possibility, not as the single right answer" and (2) "they listen carefully and ask questions about alternative views."

Accordingly, this approach includes the three following tools: (1) "advocating your own position and then inviting responses," (2) "paraphrasing what you believe to be the other person's view and inquiring as to the validity of your understanding," and (3) "explaining a gap in your understanding of the other person's views and asking for more information" (Lafley & Martin, 2013, p. 137).

Ultimately, this style of debate management lends credence to the possibilities-based approach described in Bringing Science to The Art of Strategy—that is, it generally prevents entrenchment and allows the debate to move forward in a candid way. Accordingly, this technique does not suppress ideas, it simply helps move the debate to a space in which the team can critique ideas without spoiling the general dynamic. It also helps ensure widespread group understanding, benefiting both the advocates and the potential dissenters. In this way, assertive inquiry and similar styles of debate management help reinforce a possibilities-based approach to strategy development.


Lafely, A.G., Martin, R., Rivkin, J.W., & Siggelkow, N. (2012). Bringing Science to The Art of Strategy. Harvard Business School Publishing: Boston, MA.

Lafley, A.G., & Martin, R. (2013). Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works. Harvard Business School Publishing: Boston, MA. 

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