Friday, December 18, 2015

The Loyal Opposition

One of my LinkedIn connections, Jeff DeGraff, is an innovation professor at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business. He recently developed an infograph, that while geared toward the business world, might have some applicability to education. One item in particular leapt out at me: Jeff's reference to enlisting "the loyal opposition" -- those people who don't think like you do.

Jeff's use of the "loyal opposition" also conjured up my political science classes, so I did a little digging. I found a great explanation in a law review article with the same title, by Heather K. Gerken, (J. Skelly Wright Professor of Law at Yale):
Loyal opposition is one of democracy’s grandest terms. Once used to shield the party out of power from accusations of treason, it now describes the institutionalization of opposition, most famously Great Britain’s elevation of the minority party leadership to a shadow cabinet. Termed the “greatest contribution of the nineteenth century to the art of government,” it is a stand-in for some of the best practices in democracy: making space for dissent, knitting outsiders into democracy’s fabric, attending to the institutional dimensions of integration. It perfectly captures one of the basic aims of democracy: maintaining an opposition that is loyal.
That may be all fine and well for governments, but how might that aid us in education?

First, it helps us avoid "groupthink," where everyone in the room is a like-minded thinker (or afraid to speak up if they disagree). As demonstrated in this clip from the Daily Show, the room essentially becomes an echo chamber, and not only does the group not consider alternatives, but it may in fact become more entrenched in its thinking.

Second, productive conflict drives innovation. Education needs discourse that examines diverse perspectives. Consider the example of Dr. Alice Stewart, who in the 1950s offered what she believed was compelling evidence that x-raying pregnant women significantly increased the rate of childhood cancer. It was not until she actively sought disconfirmation that the medical community accepted her findings many years later:

Margaret Heffernan's TED talk, "Dare to Disagree," demonstrates the importance of the loyal opposition. Dr. Stewart engaged a statistics expert to be her thinking partner, and his entire job was to create conflict around her theories. As Heffernan explains, only by not being able to prove Dr. Stewart was wrong, did he provide confidence that she was right.

It takes a safe space and collaborative mindsets to productively use conflict as thinking. You have to be prepared to think and be prepared to change your mind. It also takes purposefully creating a workplace that hires, cultivates, and encourages diversity in attitudes and mindsets. The upside is that building this authentic workplace will also drive innovation.

One protocol or method in which this productive conflict might be used with educational organizations or collaborative teams is structured debate. The premise is simply: members are randomly assigned to argue opposite points of view on a current topic. The conflict is not personal, but rather, provides a space where group members may explore all aspects of an issue. In this framework, both sides may be functioning as the loyal opposition to the other.

Another protocol might be pause, paraphrase, "and" from Adaptive Schools. When interacting with a colleague, I first listen to understand her perspective. When she is finished speaking, I pause, paraphrase her thoughts, and assuming she gives me a cue that my paraphrase is accurate, I offer my thinking beginning with "and I think" or "and I wonder." And is the key. I do not want to use the word "but" or "however" because both are dismissive and set up one side of the equation to be superior. With first seeking to understand her position, and then adding my thinking or wondering to her thoughts, we move the dialogue along. In the ideal situation, my colleague would use the same protocol when I spoke, and ultimately we arrive at a co-constructed understanding.

The protocol must be tight in order to protect the people involved, and that is where the word loyal is so important. Normally we avoid conflict like the plague because it taps into so many emotions and vulnerabilities. Using productive conflict with a loyal opposition -- one that has its eye on a win-win result -- creates more productive teams and nurtures innovation.

Join the Conversation...
How might we foster more loyal opposition in our organization?

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