Improving Solutions by Arguing For and Against Your Options
Bù dǎ bù xiāng shí (No discord, no concord.) – Chinese proverb
When you look around you, it's easy to find controversy – that is, a clash of opinions, ideas, information, theories, or conclusions.
You might disagree with a colleague over which candidate to employ, or you could be trying to merge your procedures with those of another team. And, at home, you may find yourself agonizing with your partner over where to go on vacation, while the TV news channel streams political debate in the background.
Controversies like these are a part of life. You can't escape them and, when the aim is to "win" or to close a discussion down, they can be dispiriting or even destructive.
However, disagreement can also be remarkably constructive – if you have a receptive mindset and follow the right approach. You can make better decisions based on good reasons by considering other perspectives and views, instead of simply rejecting them out of hand.
Constructive Controversy is a practical, powerful technique that helps you to do this with your colleagues. It's a way of testing proposed solutions to prove, disprove or improve them. And, through it, you can gain a better understanding of all the factors involved in a decision, and feel more confident in the solution that you choose.
What Is Constructive Controversy?
Constructive Controversy occurs naturally when people with opposing ideas have a desire to agree for their mutual benefit. It's also a technique that was introduced in 1979 by David Johnson and Roger Johnson for assessing different arguments in a structured way, to achieve a positive outcome.
Johnson and Johnson recognized that we each have our own limited perspective on a situation. And our "obvious" and "right" solution likely looks quite different after we've seen the fuller picture. So, Constructive Controversy encourages people to develop, express and defend a range of positions, to challenge one others' reasoning, and to reach solutions that work for the common good.
The technique builds on five actions and reactions we commonly experience during problem solving and decision making:
- You adopt an initial perspective based on your personal experiences and perceptions.
- You try to persuade others to agree with you, strengthening your belief that you are right.
- You're confronted by competing viewpoints and...
- ... you begin to doubt your rationale.
- You look for more information until you feel certain enough to draw a conclusion, even if the outcome is different from your original position.
Figure 1, below, shows this process as a cycle. We get closer to the truth of a situation each time that we work round the steps.
Figure 1. The Constructive Controversy Cycle
Setting Ground Rules
Using the Constructive Controversy technique can be an intense and time-consuming process, so it's important to agree some ground rules before you start.
Author Morton Deutsch argued that controversy can only be constructive if people work toward the best possible solution for everybody. Group goals must take priority over individual ones to keep the atmosphere cooperative rather than competitive.
So, encourage everyone in the group to participate, and to be mutually respectful. This can be hard when people are being openly critical, so it's important to challenge ideas and not the people who have them.
Ask everyone in the group to commit to understanding all sides of an issue and to be willing to change their views. They will need to use rational arguments and logic, and to draw conclusions based on evidence and reason, not emotion or prejudice. Remind them to focus on good decision making, rather than on winning, and to listen actively to what is being discussed, asking for clarification when necessary.
Creating Constructive Controversy
Constructive Controversy is not about arguing for its own sake – it follows a formal procedure to manage disagreement in a positive way.
Step 1: Brainstorm Possible Solutions
Come up with a variety of proposals to examine, not just the one or two that people have already thought of. (Find out here how to brainstorm most effectively.) For example, if you were looking at the problem of an overloaded team, you might suggest "accepting fewer contracts," "taking on more staff," "using external contractors," and "leaving things as they are."
Step 2: Form Advocacy Teams
Randomly allocate people to teams – it doesn't matter what they believe or whether they agree with one another at this stage. Then give each team a different position to research. Remind participants to keep an open mind and to collaborate closely with their team mates, so that they can agree on their approach for the next step.
Step 3: Ask One Team to Present Its Case
In this step, participants describe and explain the detail of their proposal as powerfully as they can, to convince everyone else of its validity. They'll need a strong case, backed up with facts, figures and examples.
Step 4: Invite Other Teams to Argue Against It
Now the presenting team listens to the counter-arguments from the rest of the group. It tries to disprove, refute or rebut them, and defends its original position. Other teams push for the information that they need to fully understand and evaluate what's being proposed, and they challenge any weaknesses or gaps in the argument.
Starbursting is a useful technique for considering how to challenge a proposal, the 5Whys tools is great for exploring someone else's point of view, and ORAPAPA provides a useful checklist of areas to cover before making a decision.
Step 5: Repeat Steps 3 and 4
Continue until all teams have presented their positions.
Step 6: Reverse the Positions
This is the step in the process where most fresh insights emerge, as people's perspectives change so dramatically. Here, you ask teams to take up the case for an opposing view. For example, the "fewer contracts" team adopt the "more staff" argument, and so on. If you have the time, give everyone the opportunity to argue for each option.
Step 7: Decide
Emotions might be running high by this point, so give team members some time to calm down, reflect, and come back together.
Their role changes now from advocates to decision makers. Explore what they've learned from the process with them, and gradually bring their ideas together to create a final proposal.
Be sure to compare any proposal for change with the "do nothing" option to see which gives the best outcome. After all, you don't want to spend a lot of time, money and hard work making the situation worse. Our article on Go/No-Go Decisions will help you to do this.
You may choose to include a post-decision evaluation session as well. This can help you to improve the next Constructive Controversy session that you run.
Why Choose Constructive Controversy?
The biggest benefit of Constructive Controversy is that it leads to better decision making and problem solving than you might achieve through consensus, debate or individual effort. It also helps to protect teams from logical fallacies and blind spots, because people are challenged to explain their thinking.
Multiple studies have found that the technique has positive side-effects, too. For example, it motivates people to learn, and stimulates their ability to reason, to consider others' perspectives, and to think innovatively.
This can lead to a more trusting company culture, in which it's normal for people to share expertise, to support one another, and to resolve conflict, all while actively seeking out people with opposing opinions. Their confidence and self-esteem will likely grow and their stress and anxiety levels fall, too, as they feel safe to disagree and know that they'll be heard.
Small-Scale Constructive Controversy
You can practice Constructive Controversy even when you don't have the time or people for a full event. Do this when the solution's impact is far reaching enough to justify more investigation, or when you have to make a decision on your own and you want to check its validity before implementing it.
Ask one or more colleagues to help you by proposing an alternative, whether they truly believe it's a better option or not. Proceed with a small-scale Constructive Controversy process, where you present and defend your choice, and they do the same for theirs.
Constructive Controversy is an effective tool for developing well-rounded solutions to problems, especially when you use it in the right setting and you prepare participants for safe, structured conflict.
People research different perspectives and argue both for and against them, to gain a better understanding of the problem as a whole. They then come back together to make a group decision.
Constructive Controversy is a time-consuming, highly structured process. However, when it's used to tackle significant problems, the benefits of such a thorough technique can be enormous.