How empowered, inclusive teams make better decisions about technology
In May 1996, a group of climbers set out to summit Mount Everest. They were led by a world-class climber with a clear plan to reach the top—and clear ideas about what leadership looks like.
“I will tolerate no dissension up there,” he told the group as they prepared to ascend. “My word will be absolute law, beyond appeal.”
What happened next was quite literally a perfect storm. Worsening weather caused the team to struggle and fall behind schedule. Rather than turn around, they pushed on to the summit, and, on their way back down, descended directly into a blizzard. Eight people, including the group leader, lost their lives.
And while there are many factors that led to the tragedy—ruthless winds and snow, underprepared climbers, an every-man-for-himself-culture—a key component of the team’s downfall was the fact that no one felt comfortable raising concerns to their leader.
Today, organizations face a different kind of Everest. In an era of rapid technological change and near-constant disruption, leaders regularly encounter difficult decisions about how to respond to, and leverage, that technological disruption—and how to think about its impact.
And yet, all too often, conversations around disruption can be uninformed, exclusive, and underexamined. With so much at stake, business leaders would be wise to foster a decision-making process that includes informed, diverse stakeholders who feel empowered—even encouraged—to voice constructive critiques.
Cultivating this kind of decision-making is particularly important when it comes to decisions around technology. Because technology has become ubiquitous—and so has technological change. Still, the conversation around the future of tech frequently centers around the people who make it, rather than the people who use it.
These days, everyone is using it—and everyone has, in some way, seen the profound impact it can have on the workplace, and the world. That’s why I believe that as leaders, we should make it our mission to ensure our people are tech-savvy—that is, conversant in the language of disruption.
But even beyond being able to identify disruptors, we should also consider the ethical dilemmas they present.
Understanding the ethical implications of innovations, big and small, is critically important. Because it’s not just on tech companies—the people who create these innovations—to mitigate their effects, it’s on us, too: those of us who use technology, and who deploy it in service of our people, our clients, and our communities.
Doing so requires not only knowledgeable decision-making teams, but diverse ones.
Because, to put it simply, diverse discussers—varying in background and experience—can lead to stronger discussions. The more perspectives there are in a conversation, the more likely that conversation is to explore a multitude of outcomes. And in a moment where too many technological innovations seek to achieve a narrow, immediate goal, we need as many voices as possible to consider the long-term, far-reaching impacts of a given disruptor.
Of course, it’s not enough just to get diverse perspectives in the room. We also have to cultivate an inclusive environment where everyone is empowered and encouraged to bring their authentic selves to the table, so that they can share their experiences and their perspectives—especially when those perspectives go against the status quo.
Because when considering something new or unknown, it’s important to examine every angle and challenge every assumption.
This kind of decision-making process is just that—a process. It takes time. And it takes courage. Dissent is rarely comfortable; it is, by its very nature, confrontational. But that’s exactly the point. As leaders, we should want our people to hold each other accountable, and our collective ideas to hold up to constructive critique.
That’s why we we should invite and openly praise dissent—and possibly even identify rotating “designated dissenters” across projects and teams, to ensure no one person is always playing the role of devil’s advocate. And it’s why we should assess our teams for diversity of thought, backgrounds, and perspectives—and help fill any gaps by tapping into various points of view from across our organizations and, if needed, outside of them.
Ultimately, introducing diversity and dissent into the decision-making process is how we can help identify pain points and avoid them. It’s how we can make thoughtful decisions about technology that minimize harm.
And it’s how we can make decisions that maximize gain. Because when it comes to technology—or any challenge, really—there is incredible opportunity that comes with building inclusive, conscientious teams that feel comfortable challenging the status quo: to help reduce inequities; to improve lives; to go where few have ever gone before.
Just ask Alison Levine, who led the first American Women’s Everest Expedition in 2002. Her team included a diverse group of women who prepared for months. They outlined clear objectives and metrics of success—including that getting everyone down safely was more important than summiting.
And they weren’t afraid to dissent.
“It’s important to bring conflict out into the open,” Levine has said of her leadership strategy. “It’s essential to make team members feel valued and that his or her opinion matters.”
In implementing this kind of decision-making process, business leaders can help set our teams, our clients, and our communities up for success. Reaching a decision, a peak, isn’t always easy. But the climb is well worth it.
Janet Foutty is executive chair of the board of Deloitte. She is also a member of Deloitte’s Global Board of Directors and chair of Deloitte Foundation. Foutty previously served as chair and CEO for Deloitte Consulting LLP.
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