Some months ago, Time magazine published an article called Why the Office Oddball Is Good for Business, about how really productive meetings need someone in them to stop too much consensus too early. The article starts
Want to get the most out of your next brainstorming session at work? Bring in an oddball. If you can’t find an oddball, try a naysayer or even a mere stranger — anyone who can keep things vaguely uncomfortable. If that sounds like a prescription for one of the worst meetings you’ve ever had, suck it up and go anyway. It might also be one of the most productive.
It does sound like the recipe for an active meeting, one in which everybody has to be on their toes, listening for the real meaning behind the words. A meeting in which those catching up on their email will miss something important. A meeting which may not produce agreement, but will produce more clarity on precisely what it is you disagree about. If you’re going to have a meeting, isn’t that what you want? A meeting to produce results, not just nods around the table from people who aren’t really paying attention?
Which is not to say that every meeting should be uncomfortable; lots of meetings are to hash out details where people agree on the basics. But it’s amazing how often people think they agree about something until they’re challenged to explain it in detail, which is where they discover they disagree on the explanation.
Whether any person raising uncomfortable issues is welcome depends on who’s running the meeting, whether they’re looking for results or, instead, looking for uncritical approval of what they want. I’ve also seen cases where the person running the meeting claims to want the uncomfortable questions asked, but in reality doesn’t. it’s hard, allowing the difficult questions. Answering them is tough, admitting you don’t have answers to all of them can be tougher. So the tendency is to squelch the questions, usually by squelching the questioner. I suspect this tendency contributes to a certain number of business failures.