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You (and Your Business) Need the Dissenters and Non-Believers

A close friend wrote the following on Facebook the other day: “You open your mind with faith and close it with doubt.” A couple of years ago, I probably would have agreed wholeheartedly with that sentiment. Today, though, I found myself agreeing with the person who left the simple reply: “…or vice versa.”

A lot of the advice given to new entrepreneurs is to “shut out doubt” and, as Charlie the Unicorn‘s friends try to convince him, to “shun the non-believers”. The warning inherent in these messages is that the small thinkers in your life, in collusion with your inner demons,¬†will try to hold you back from succeeding, and that their primary tactic will be to plant seeds of doubt that will grow and consume your brain to the point that you just give up. The idea follows that if you shut out any dissenting opinions, you’ll stay focused on your vision and be able to achieve your goal with minimal distraction. So, at least on the surface then, shunning the non-believers might seem like great advice.

But it’s not. It’s terrible advice, especially for entrepreneurs. In fact, tuning out the voices of dissenters is probably the best way to guarantee that your ideas will tank. Why? Because no dissent means no improvement, no refinement, no chance to find the flaws in your ideas. Shutting out the non-believers means that you’re working in a vacuum where only your opinion matters. It means ignoring the voice of the little boy as he points out that the king is, in fact, buck naked.

The real question, then, is how can you make space for the doubt and invite in the non-believers without letting their skepticism completely derail you? Here are a few suggestions.

  1. If you act like Dr. Evil, don’t expect dissent. Feeding the people who disagree with you to frickin’ sharks with frickin’ laserbeams on their heads means that eventually no one will disagree with you. Instead, create a safe space for the heretics. Make sure they understand that poking holes in your ideas is not only acceptable, it’s desirable. That you’re looking for negative feedback. That you won’t shout down dissenting opinions but will listen gratefully and give them proper consideration.
  2. It’s okay to change your mind, but not every five minutes. It’s usually best to listen carefully to the dissenting opinions, take good notes, then retreat to give them consideration and decide on their validity and application. If you do your deliberation in an open meeting or on an email chain where everyone is copied, you’re likely to inspire folks to start making shit up just so that they can be part of the action.
  3. Set a time limit for dissent. If you don’t, you’ll increase the chances that whatever you’re trying to do will suffer death by committee. Call it the “drop-dead” or the “go/no go” date, but at some point, you need to make the decision whether or not to ship. The longer you wait, the harder it will be to decide. Set a clearly defined “refinement” period and when it’s over, commit to your decision.
  4. Trust your team to have your back. Chances are pretty good that the folks on your team are really interested in seeing you succeed. Yes, there are naysayers in the world whose one and only goal is to hold any- and everyone back from achieving any kind of success, but they’re actually really easy to spot and can therefore be excluded from the team (you might also consider excluding them from your life as they’re usually not a ton of fun to have around). The rest, though, are probably genuinely trying to be helpful. That doesn’t make their dissenting opinions right, of course, but it does help to remember that their motivation probably is.

Doubt doesn’t automatically close your mind, and faith doesn’t automatically open it. In fact, the reverse is usually true: absolute, unwavering faith can close your mind to other possibilities, possibilities for which there might be compelling evidence (think of the creationists’ absolute faith in spite of overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary). Skepticism and doubt play a vital role in entrepreneurship and innovation. They open the mind to possible improvements and/or flaws. They require some getting used to, but inviting the heretics and nay-sayers (even the ones that only live inside your head) to the table is a powerful tool for making your business…and yourself…the best that it can be.

P.S. If Charlie had listened to his inner skeptic, it might have saved his kidney. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, watch the the full video below.

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One Response to You (and Your Business) Need the Dissenters and Non-Believers

  1. Yeah. Sometimes, I wanna bristle whenever creative criticism of how we do stuff comes up. Sometimes because asshats who have no clue what they’re talking about are so free with their opinions, and they’re just stupid. Sometimes, though, great criticism comes from folks playing Devil’s Advocate. Some of the best refinements come from people outside of the bubble. Thanks for another awwesome post, Jerry.

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