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The Art of Disagreement

Matt Popkes
VP of Strategy

Successful agencies are shaped by effective disagreements.


We’re learning to argue smarter. Newsflash: It’s hard.

As users, how we get information and why we make our decisions is a fluid, non-linear, constantly changing process. As an agency, our clients’ challenges adapt in response to their customers, shifting business priorities around constantly.

If we’re going to be an effective agency partner, we too must adapt and recognize that the era of the assembly line agency is at an end. The old days of Biz Dev handing the agency project to Accounts, who hands off to Strategy, who passes to Content, who then sends to Design, who finally gives to Development to take the work over the finish line… is not how the world works anymore.
At eROI, we’ve recently begun to looking beyond the tactical, process-driven “How do we accomplish the task at hand?” mentality to instead ask “How can we effectively collaborate?” Learning to adapt this way forces us to disagree constantly—thus practicing one of the most critical skills that any agency can learn.
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Flexibility isn’t always pretty…

 
Adaptation is the hallmark of fluid, flexible systems, not rigid, sequential assembly lines, demanding collaboration, contributions, and points of view from multiple departments and disciplines at almost every stage of projects and partnerships. We’re blurring the lines of when, where, and how colleagues contribute to our work, whatever their title might be.

Fluidity among disciplines can create, if we’re doing it right, truly inspired work that reflects the sum of our individual skills and intelligence. But it also fundamentally challenges every individual in our agency.

Much of our projects’ successes depend on how effectively we disagree. True collaboration starts when we stop treating different points of view as threats.

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…Neither is zero-sum thinking

 
Zero-sum thinking hurts our project teams, agency, work, our partners. We have to challenge our tendencies to treat different points of view as threats, treating our interactions as a zero-sum-game. My point of view has to win, therefore your point of view has to lose. For my perspective to be valid, yours must be wrong. Rather than actively listening and trying to learn from your point of view, I am actually mentally sharpening my argument to defend my position, as you’re explaining your own. We “listen” for our chance to talk. Dominant personalities often “win” at the expense of critical learnings from alternate points of view as our group decision making becomes a series win/lose conversations.


How we’re learning to argue (a shortlist)

  1. Disagreements are opportunities.
  2. We can consciously recognize and address our need to be right, to win, both in conversation and group dynamics.
  3. We can intentionally listen, rather than wait for chances to speak.
  4. By building complementary ideas on top of complementary ideas, we can explore different ways of thinking.
  5. Training for effective disagreement creates thoughtful outcomes and more successful businesses, agencies, and people.


Any advice?

We’d love to hear about your experiences learning to disagree. What works? What are some pitfalls, especially among competing personalities and teams? What advice can you share to create the best work possible?

Stay tuned for Part II, where we share personal anecdotes about useful (and not-so-useful) conflict.

Matt Popkes
Matt Popkes, VP of Strategy at eROI.