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Strategic Controversy - Welcome the Dissent

7/9/2013 --

Disagreement and dissent are underrated as drivers of strategy, says Ross professor Aneel Karnani.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — When U-M Ross Professor Aneel Karnani talks to executives and reads mission statements, he often comes away thinking that companies need more controversy.

Not the kind that puts the company in the headlines, but the kind that shakes the conference room walls with debate, and puts the business in a direction with which some may disagree.

Teamwork and pulling in the same direction have their place in a company's culture, but that thinking has become so pervasive that it often stifles the dissent and debate necessary to set a sound business strategy, says Karnani, associate professor of strategy.

His studies and writings have focused on what drives a successful strategy. Karnani's conclusion is that too many companies don't value internal debate and don't know how to handle reasoned disagreement. It's a concept he teaches in the Ross Executive Education Program Business Acumen for High-Potential Executives.

"Controversy is the essence of strategy," he says. "If you're not doing something that another equally smart competitor doesn't agree with, then you don't have a real strategy. Everybody says they focus on customers. Everybody wants to make the best product for the lowest cost. What is different about your strategy?"

For example, The Boeing Co. and Airbus — the two global commercial airline builders — went in opposite directions with their new flagship products. Airbus went big with the jumbo A380 while Boeing went a different route with the mid-size 787 Dreamliner.

"The 'let's all be team players' and 'let's pull together,' thinking can be a trap," Karnani says. "A vision isn't strategy. Neither is a mission statement. Strategy comes from internal debate, even dissent. Then you resolve the debate, make a decision, and take action. The best companies do that."

In fact, Karnani says some successful companies manufacture controversy. One company Karnani studied will identify five pressing issues and assign two managers to each one, with each exploring a different way to handle it. In the end, only one way is chosen.

Of course, controversy has to be managed. The debates end at some point and a strategy is agreed upon. After that, teamwork comes into play.

"Two surgeons may disagree on the right way to treat a patient or even whether the surgery should be done, but once the patient is on the table the argument is over and you work together on the task at hand," he says. "If the company's leadership picks a strategy you don't agree with, you can't sabotage it."

Other things to keep in mind when encouraging debate:

  • Root the debate in data and logic. Arguments should be evidence-based
  • De-personalize and de-politicize the debate. Argue about ideas, not against people. The important thing is that all avenues are explored and debated.
Another important takeaway for Business Acumen students — usually up-and-coming mid-level executives — is the cascading effect of strategy. Top managers make decisions and that creates a set of decisions for people below.

"While their strategic choices are more narrow than the CEOs, mid-level managers still have controversies to manage," Karnani says. "For example, once the CEO decides to start a business in China, the country manager has to go along with it. But then he or she has some decisions to make. Build a plant, make an acquisition, or form a joint venture? The decision will be controversial. If the decision is to build a new plant, the plant manager has to decide whether to automate or rely on labor. At any level, you have to create the controversy, have the debate, and let that guide your strategy."

— Terry Kosdrosky

For more information, contact:
Terry Kosdrosky, (734) 936-2502,