Short summary: No, I’m not going to “just agree all the time” with anyone. In a healthy meeting, whenever any important initiative is proposed, it’s everyone’s job to try hard to come up with good reasons for objecting. That’s part of normal process. Then you have a good discussion in which the team decided whether the initiative should be approved unrevised, approved in a revised form, or rejected. Ideally, this final decision will be unanimous, because everyone will agree that good process has produced a good decision. No one should ever disagree because an idea comes from the other side because the school board should not be divided into two sides.
I have seen and heard complaints that the current school board members just always agree with the administration. I think that’s a misunderstanding that results from seeing unanimous votes in the minutes. I know (because I have heard him say so) that Dr. Martin prefers whenever possible to achieve unanimity. In my opinion, unanimity can be a good thing. But I also know that school board meetings and committee meetings are not sweet harmony and easy unanimity from start to finish.
I say unanimity “can be” a good thing because if unanimity meant that the board members were not thinking for themselves, or were not taking contrary evidence into account, or were pressured into conforming, or just didn’t care, that would be bad. I don’t think the superintendent or anyone else in the Cal Schools leadership wants that kind of unanimity.
But most things that are voted on have been studied at some length and discussed at prior committee meetings and board meetings. A unanimous vote at the end of the process hopefully means that all objections and concerns have been discussed, the plan has been adjusted accordingly, and now we have a measure that everyone can agree on.
How could that happen? This is part of why I mean when I refer to the value of good process (one of my plank 6 values).
A leadership book that I have found insightful and helpful is Patrick Lencioni’s Death by Meeting. In this book Lencioni describes what makes a good meeting. I won’t try to summarize the whole book. I just want to mention two stages in the process that a good meeting moves through.
One stage is called “mining for conflict.” Lencioni points out that when a group is planning to make a decision that means the company (and this would apply to a school district) is going to commit to a course of action, there will be effort and costs. Everyone should take seriously the possibility that the plan could misfire, and the effort and expense will be wasted. So the leader of the meeting must “mine for conflict,” that is, must persuade everyone to dig down into the details and come up with everything they can think of that could go wrong. They must put all those negatives on the table.
The person who is proposing the plan should not resent these objections, must not take them as personal attacks, must be able to trust that everyone is taking shots at the plan in order to make sure that it is bulletproof.
At the publishing company where I serve as editor-in-chief, I chair the publishing committee. Acquisitions editors bring their book proposals to pubcom. Everyone on the committee likes everyone else. No one wants conflict. No one wants to shoot down an idea that one of the acquisitions editors is fond of. This is especially a problem when the proposal is presented by the editor-in-chief, because for four of the other eight committee members, I am their boss! So there is reluctance sometimes to raise objections.
I therefore often remind the committee that it is everyone’s job to try to think of all the worst things that could happen. It is everyone’s job to disagree if they can think of any good reason for disagreeing. It is best for the company, which means it is also best for every member of the committee, including the person who might be spared being responsible for getting us to publish a bad book.
So that stage of the meeting is “mining for conflict.”
When the causes for disagreement have been brought to the surface, you can talk about them. Sometimes it will turn out that your reason for objecting was not valid. You were misunderstanding or miscalculating. You wouldn’t have known that if you hadn’t spoken up! Sometimes the reason for objecting is valid: it shows up a weakness in the proposal. Sometimes that means the proposal will be rejected. Sometimes, though, it means the plan will be strengthened. If you hadn’t brought up your objection, that weakness would have been there and could have caused the project to fail, but because you brought it up, the project was strengthened and had a better chance of succeeding. Or because you brought it up, everyone came to see that the proposal should be abandoned.
And then again sometimes it is not possible for everyone to agree. After all, it is never possible to predict the future with precision. For every book proposal (in my field of work—and it is similar in other matters) you can only come up with probabilities at best. There are good ideas, and there are bad ideas but there are no sure things. You have to make your best judgment and move on.
So after sufficient discussion, the person chairing the meeting must sum up. It’s lovely when it’s possible to say: “We have worked through all the conflict, and now we are all on the same page.” But sometimes that is not possible. Maybe the chair has to say: “We have had a good discussion, but I can see that Terry still is not convinced.” This is when you get to the stage of the meeting that Lencioni calls “disagree and commit.”
Let’s say, for example, that the sales VP, after all the questions and explanations, still doesn’t think the book is a good idea, but the rest of the committee does. What happens in my company in such a case is that the sales VP says something like this: “I cannot understand why you all think this book is going to succeed. It still seems to me that the subject is arcane and the writing is dull. But I know the rest of you see it differently. You think the author’s standing in the field, along with her discovery of new evidence and her novel conclusion, will make this a book that everyone must buy, and everyone will be talking about for the next five years. We are a team. I disagree with you, but I know that you have training and experience that are different from mine, and that you want this company to succeed every bit as much as I do. So, given that you think we should publish this book, here is my commitment: I will do everything in my power to see that this book sells as well as it possibly can. My sales reps and I will present it to our accounts with great enthusiasm. If it becomes a bestseller, I will be as happy as the rest of you.”
That’s what Lencioni calls “disagree and commit.”
I suspect that some of the unanimous votes in the minutes of the Cal Board of Education’s meetings represent that kind of unanimity. Not the unanimity that comes from laziness, fear, or groupthink. Rather: the kind of unanimity that comes from hashing through all the pros and cons, modifying the initial proposal to mitigate some of the cons, and then in the end saying: we’re all in this together, and we all want to do what is best for our students, so this is going to be our decision. We expect all our administrators and teachers to give it their best effort, and the best way we have of signaling that expectation is this: we are all voting yes.
And because all the disagreements have been surfaced and discussed during the meeting, after the meeting no one goes off mumbling and griping to other people about their objections.
So no, I am not going to just agree with the superintendent and other board members all the time. But in every matter of importance, I will be happiest if it is possible to move through deliberately welcomed and negotiated conflict to final agreement. Agreement is not a presupposition; it is a goal. Disagreement is not a negative unless it is the manifestation of entrenched hostility. When it is responsible and constructive, it should be a stage on the way to agreement.