A Multitude of Counselors

Most of the time there will be opposing viewpoints and a variety of perspectives on things being discussed, so leave some room for them in what you say and ask.


No one has a corner on good ideas. The scholar who publishes first gets the credit, but that doesn’t mean that no one else had the same ideas. The nature of academic publishing, however, is such that if you’re second, your research doesn’t get published.

The same thing holds true for patents.

For example, did you know that there’s some doubt as to whether Alexander Graham Bell actually invented the first telephone? In the 1870s, Elisha Gray also designed one that was very similar. Both men submitted their patent applications within hours of one another but, like so many other disputes in America, it was settled in court.

Thomas Edison is remembered most for “inventing” the light bulb in 1878, but British scientist, Warren de la Rue actually discovered how to do it almost 40 years before that. It was Edison (and his team’s) ability, however, to create one that had commercial value that made the breakthrough his for posterity.

When Bill Gates left Harvard University to start Microsoft, it was because he could see that technology was going to put a computer on everyone’s desk. Microsoft was founded almost a year to the day before Apple.

What would’ve happened if Apple had released its computers first?



Let’s think about organizations.

Did you know that different countries approach strategy differently?

In the US and perhaps to a lesser extent in Britain, companies are five times as likely to pursue profit as their primary goal as Japanese companies, yet both experience global success.

These examples show that not only are many people working on the same problems simultaneously, they’re also coming up with a multitude of ways to accomplish the same things. They’re meant to show you something of the variety of opinions, viewpoints, and perspectives there are not only on what to do, but how to do it, whatever it is.

And that means that there is no one best way - no best practice - for achieving anything. In any discussion, there will be many ideas and even disagreement; nevertheless, all of them will be valid.



Of course, you can argue about whether the opinions of others are valid or not. In fact, you may have decided already that most of them are ridiculous, at least ones to you, but if you did that, then you’d be guilty of being what society now considers to be intolerant.

Fifty years ago, the word tolerant meant that everyone was entitled to an opinion. Nowadays, however, the word means that all of the opinions expressed have merit; and if you’re seen not to afford them an equal hearing, then you’re deemed to be intolerant. That doesn’t mean that you are; only that you open yourself to that accusation.

And “my way or the highway” is out-of-date, old-fashioned, and won’t be tolerated. If you only want people around you who agree with what you say, then you’ll have to hire them because if you don’t, then you’ll end up with some in your organization who will have and express different views.


Wisdom in a multitude of counselors

Just remember, however, that there’s wisdom in a multitude of counselors. To put it another way, there’s folly in the absence of them.

The purpose of having a lot of counselors - i.e. the views and opinions of others even if they disagree with you - is so that you can hear and see things from many perspectives other than your own. And that’s because just like Bell and Gray, Edison and de la Rue, and Gates and Steve Jobs, no one has a corner on good ideas.

No one knows everything and certainly not all at once.

But you have to be willing to listen to them. If you won’t listen - and listen means to respect them and their thoughts, and to include them in the decisions that you take, rather than ignoring them - then you’re wasting your time and money by having them around to ask.

Fortunately, many managers understand this. They recognize that the skill of management often doesn’t include the skills of those that they manage. In fact, it’s how management as a profession came into existence.

Unlike the cotton mills of northern England, which could be easily managed by their owners, the railroads in America were something entirely different. That’s because it took several days to see all the locations where the companies’ assets were held. It simply wasn’t possible to visit the workplaces of everyone in a timely manner because they were separated by hundreds of miles. The engineers that created the railroads recognized this and hired professional managers to do something that they could not.


How do you obtain the opinions of others?

If you want to obtain the opinions of others, then how do you do it?


Create a sharing environment

The first thing you must do is to create an environment that will make people want to share their opinions with you.

Far too many leaders and managers make it hard for people to share their ideas. Oh, they may have a suggestion box, or even a suggestion programme, but then they pooh-pooh the ones they get or embarrass the people who give them.

No one is going to share anything with you if they think that you’re going to treat them like that as a result.

You have to make it feel safe to make suggestions, and chain-of-command should never interfere with this.

Your people should not only feel comfortable to do so, but have your full support to send their ideas directly to you. They shouldn’t have to vet them through their supervisors.

And supervisors need to understand that suggestions, in most cases, aren’t a criticism of them or their management style. In other words, they need to accept that in most cases subordinates aren’t making suggestions because their managers are incompetent, but because they feel a certain loyalty to the organization and want to help to make it better. But if they have to convince their supervisors that their suggestions have merit before you get to see it, then many won’t bother. Instead, they’ll see their supervisors as your gatekeepers.

Weak supervisors feel threatened by suggestions that skip their desks, so it’s up to you to make sure that they don’t.


Ask them

The second thing you must do if you want the opinions of others is to ask them. That may seem like common sense, but it isn’t.

For instance, an open-ended question like, “Do you have any suggestions or ideas?” is vague, though that’s something that managers will do. What they don’t seem to understand is that people need a context. It doesn’t matter if they’re in a meeting with five or ten others, or on a conference call with thousands of other people. They need to understand what you think the problem is, its background, what the results would be if it was fixed, and how it will affect them personally when it is. And they need to be able to ask you, and probably others, questions so that they can scrutinize their own ideas before presenting them to you.

Organizations are awash with information, but seemingly unable to communicate with the people in them. The chain-of-command was designed to provide an orderly way to pass information from one end of the organization to another, but more often than not it ends up functioning like locks in an interminable canal.

That’s why Henry Ford disliked it so much. He didn’t want to have to wait a month or six weeks to find out something that could get to him in less than an hour by a more direct route. Granted, many organizations today are too big for the CEO or MD to get everything sent directly to him/her, but you get the idea. You need to make it easier for people to tell you things.

Email can do that if it’s handled correctly, though confidentiality still needs to be preserved.

Surveys are another popular way to obtain opinions, but they’re costly to create and score. Not just anyone can create one that will give you meaningful data.

Semi-structured interviews are effective, too, but are also expensive and time-consuming. And “Town Halls” offer limited opportunities for everyone to express their view.

There’s no easy, cheap and fast way to do it. Nevertheless, you must do all you can to keep the communication channels open and allow information to flow through them.

But that’s only half the battle.


How do you prove that the viewpoints of others have merit to you?

Once you have the viewpoints, the ideas, and suggestions, how do you demonstrate to those who made them that you think they have merit?

Do you simply acknowledge them generically in a group meeting, and then tell people what you’re going to do? Do you send an automatic email that’s exactly the same to everyone who contributed? Or do you send a personal email that not only thanks people for their input, and asks a follow-up question?

Time will certainly have a bearing on what you do, but you also have to understand how your response will feel to the person who gets it.

That, too, requires a certain finesse. It’s easy to destroy the emotional capital that you’ve worked so hard to build up by making people to feel that you don’t respect their opinions.

We’re not finished.

There’s one more thing you have to do.


Make time to listen and respond to the opinions of others

People will only feel that you value their opinions if you afford them sufficient time to express them.

For example, some speakers, presenters, and even lecturers will say something like, “This is what I’m going to talk about, and then I’ll answer your questions at the end.” And then at the end, because they waffled for so long there isn’t time for questions, so they rush through a few easy ones, and then stop.

That doesn’t show respect for all the people who listened attentively the entire time, and who now have good questions to ask.

You must be different.

You must include and honor a reasonable amount of time for the articulate and those who are less so to express their opinions and views, and to gain clarification from you.


It’s that patient interaction with you that proves that the opinions of others matter to you.

Anytime there’s a discussion, whether the group is large or small, you have to expect that there will be different views which are influenced by a variety of interests and experiences. That they exist is a positive thing because you know that they’re not the product of your inner circle - those few people who think exactly the same as you. They’re not yes-men or yes-women.


How’s this for a novel approach?

Have you ever thought about deliberately including members of the “opposition” in your decision-making for instance; one or more people who you know will disagree with what you want to do, or how you want to do it?

Or have you ever given people permission to routinely act in that way?

To deliberately invite people to question what you do is the sign of someone who appreciates the validity of opposing viewpoints and perspectives.

And it takes guts to do it!


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