Disagree and commit

Tough decisions, a few-years-old shareholder letter, and 7 other things worth your time.

Let me know if this sounds familiar: I find it’s harder to make decisions lately, simply because there’s so much more uncertainty than I’d usually want to deal with.

Case in point: Our daughter’s public school district announced recently that we’ll be starting the year next month with a 100 percent virtual program.

I don’t object to that, per se. I mean, there’s a global pandemic, you might have heard.

But, at the same time, they aren’t sharing any information whatsoever about when they might hope to try in-person instruction—even with the caveat that it would be a best-case scenario, subject to change, etc.

You tell me: What do we do with that?

Do we go along and start the school year five days a week in front of a computer in our spare room?

Do we tighten our belts and pony up for private school tuition for a year, knowing that the public schools might open for in-person or hybrid in a month or two (who knows?)—or else that the private school might itself soon decide that they’ve made a mistake, and have to go virtual as well?

It’s a tough call. A whole bunch of tough calls, in fact.

Now, as it happens, I wrote on Inc.com not too long ago about a way to get a team to make hard business decisions quickly, when you don’t have all the information you need.

It also works for personal decisions—when you need to chart a course of action with a spouse, or other family, or friends.

The whole thing comes down to a three-word phrase: “disagree and commit.” 

You might be familiar with it, as it was popularized by Jeff Bezos in an Amazon shareholder letter a few years ago. The theory is that you should act decisively when you you have 70 percent of the required information, in the hope that your competitors will wait until they get to 90 or 100 percent.

You move, you make mistakes, you readjust, you keep going—and meanwhile, the widget-maker in the next town over hasn’t even started.

However, one problem with this kind of speed is that a decision made with 70 percent information is one that reasonable people can disagree with. So, “disagree and commit” gives everyone a different way to buy in, by making “commitment” the goal, rather than “consensus.”

Here, let’s just let Bezos explain it:

The phrase can save a lot of time. If you have conviction on a particular direction even though there's no consensus, it's helpful to say, "Look, I know we disagree on this but will you gamble with me on it? Disagree and commit?"

By the time you're at this point, no one can know the answer for sure, and you'll probably get a quick yes ...

He goes on to tell a story about an Amazon Prime original show that folks at Amazon really wanted to make, but that Bezos thought was expensive and risky.

In the end, he wrote to the team: “I disagree and commit and hope it becomes the most watched thing we've ever made.”

(Reading between the lines, by the way, my guess is that this show was The Man in the High Castle.)

Anyway, I’ve been known to use this phrase in smaller decisions with family and friends. I’m a bit of a geek and I think they know where it comes from, but you can imagine the scenarios:

“Honey, let’s get takeout tonight. I was thinking about that new Thai restaurant, are you okay with that?”

“You know, I might have said let’s get Indian food, but: ‘Disagree and commit.’”

Or else:

“We’re all caught up on Killing Eve. Should we pick a new show to watch together?”

“How about The Man in the High Castle? I’ve heard good things.”

“Hmmm, not sure it’s what I would have picked, but: ‘Disagree and commit.’”

See? No judgment, no risk — but also it sort of opens the disagreer up psychologically to the idea that maybe this will be a good idea after all.

As for the decider? I think it removes some pressure there too, because everyone knows you’re making a suggestion or a decision with incomplete information.

You don’t have to defend it to the death, so to speak, if it turns out to be wrong. Let’s try one that’s a bit harder:

“What do you think we should do: stick with the virtual public school, or enroll our daughter in a private school for the year, knowing that we have no idea what this is going to look like in either case in a few months?”

(Pure silence.)

OK, it doesn’t work for everything. But I’m still a fan.

How about you? Can I get you to try it?

Even if you think it’s silly, will you gamble with me on it? Disagree and commit?

7 other things worth your time

  • The Postmaster General testified before Congress about all the cutbacks in advance of the election. Meanwhile, the family of a deceased U.S. Army veteran whose cremated remains were sent through the mail say the postal service lost the urn for 12 days. (The Guardian, ABC News NYC)

  • Google recently announced it’s launching a selection of professional courses that teach candidates how to perform in-demand jobs, like program managers, UX designers, and data analysts. Within Google, they’ll be treated as the equivalent of a college degree. (Inc.com)

  • Jerry Falwell is denying reports that he’s out as the president of Liberty University after a scandal regarding his wife’s affair and Falwell’s alleged — aw heck, I don’t need to get into the salacious details here. Click through if you’re curious. (CNN)

  • A prominent neo-Nazi, Richard Spencer, endorsed Joe Biden—but the Biden campaign “forcefully disavowed Spencer's endorsement shortly after, describing him as part of the ‘vile forces of hate who have come crawling out from under rocks’ in the U.S.” (Business Insider)

  • I’ve had a couple of Covid tests now — and while they’re not especially pleasant, they weren’t that bad. But this robot that would apparently shove the swab up your nose looks terrifying. (The Verge)

  • A 20-year-old woman believed to have died was found breathing at a Detroit funeral home. “They were about to embalm her which is most frightening,” her lawyer said. “It’s one of people's worst nightmares to imagine having an ambulance called and instead, sending you off to a funeral home in a body bag.” (WXYZ-TV)

  • California fire officials are cautiously optimistic but they are pleading with residents to stay out of evacuation zones and prepare for days away from home as three massive San Francisco Bay Area wildfires rage on. (Associated Press)

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