The Value of Disagreement over New Ideas

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Loads or Shipments? Truckload or LTL?

“Why is it a problem to have stops? Stops are common. We should be able to add them to a live load.” He was insisting.

This made no sense to me.

“You mean a shipment, right? The load becomes a shipment once matched.” I waited for his confirmation. It wasn’t happening.

This got me thinking about what it means to add stops for loads too. What was this about live loads? We’d have to change how matching algorithms work. It took us months to research, design, redesign, and have everyone align on. My next meeting with design, engineering, and quality teams will not go well. I can’t keep revising the short-term roadmap, nothing will get done.

“That’s what I meant. Was it truckload only? We did say LTL too?” He was one of the founders, and an important investor.

“No. We said truckload, and we agreed at the time that this was full truckload only. LTL is a different business altogether. You know it. You built a business in FTL before, and I don’t think you did LTL. Different customer needs, suppliers, service, technology. We’d have to do new research. Do you want to wait for another year? Differentiators are different. Everything is different.” I was Head of Product at the time, which meant that I was responsible for aligning everyone on what the product is, what it could be, and getting everyone to agree what it should be. In this venture, the initial ideas came from investors, what one might call a “product vision”. It was also on me to make sure the product satisfies everyone, from customers to engineers who make, release, maintain, and improve it.

“Can we stick to truckload only for now? We know it’s a big opportunity, we’re early, and it’s complicated enough.” I hoped this would stop him, or at least postpone this.

He was silent. I continued. “So, there’s no such thing as ‘live load’. I know someone may be calling freight that’s moving a ‘live load’, but we aren’t. Remember, the load is what the customer asks us to move, and it stays a load until it’s matched to a carrier; at that point, it becomes a shipment. Loads and shipments are described in a different way, the information about the load is only some of the information we then need to have and keep a record of, about a shipment.”

It might have been the tenth or 20th time we had essentially the same issue; I lost count. It wasn’t specific to the two of us. We had been working together for a while. There were no bad intentions. It was happening frequently in our other teams. It was in conversations, brainstorming, planning. What we used to communicate didn’t make much difference — emails, chats, remote or live meetings. It was faster to resolve in live meetings, but that lasted only until the end of the meeting, or at most until the next one.

Unpacking Disagreement

At some times, we used the same names for different new ideas, and at others, we used different names for similar new ideas. We disagreed frequently. Even when we might have agreed quickly, we couldn’t. If the same words stand for different ideas, and if these ideas are new (and therefore, do not come with an established definition), you are never sure if you agree or not.

Disagreements we had over “load”, “shipment”, “truckload” and “LTL” were an insignificantly small sample of confrontations we had over four years when I was involved in the logistics venture. Innovation there was never-ending. As our customers changed their minds about what worked best for them, as we acquired new customers with new expectations, conventions, constraints, practices, we kept coming up with new ideas internally for how to change our organization, products, services, systems, in response.

In such an environment, it is more useful to develop an appreciation for disagreement, than to prefer stability. This is not only to accept it as a frequent phenomenon, but also to learn to analyze it, so you can then better decide how to address it.

Part of the problem with “load” and “shipment” was that we used same words for different new ideas. The cure for polysemy is obvious if we could pick one of a few available definitions for “load” and “shipment”: we should review available ones and agree on one for each word.

Disagreement over new concepts is more subtle, of course, for three reasons.

Firstly, it is naïve to expect to reach the agreement easily — disagreement is not simply over which definition we will pick among a few, it is over the scope of the system, product, service to design, build, run, manage, and improve.

There are significant ramifications of adopting one or other definition of a new concept; the definition affects where we want to go, how we will get there, and what resources we will need.

If we defined “load” as being anything fitting in a dry van, this would not remove the possibility of shipping smaller loads for different customers on the same truck (the same trailer), and would lead us to LTL.

Secondly, disagreement over “load” may not be local to the definition of “load”. What we agree for “load” may lead us to have to change our definition of “shipment”, “customer”, and others.

New concepts depend on each other, in that the meaning of one will be tied to the meaning of others. If definitions ought to represent some of that meaning, then changing the definition of one new concept will affect definitions of other concepts which mention it. If the definition of X mentions Y, then changing the definition of Y may require us to change the definition of X.

Thirdly, we were creating new ideas, and the first version of a new idea is rarely the best. It wasn’t that we disagreed over general-purpose or even established specialized definitions of “load” and “shipment” — we used these words in new ways, specific to inventions we were coming up with, within the local context of the innovation process we were involved in. Even if he had a specialized, industry-standard definition in mind for “load”, it didn’t matter, since I was looking for an idea of load which was new, and which fitted our aims and our constraints and the innovation we wanted to get to.

The problem that the novelty of an idea introduces, is that disagreement we have now is not going to be the only disagreement we will have: the new idea will go through many changes, which will be motivated by various disagreements over time.

Disagreement over new ideas is a problem that intensifies over time and with more people. The more successful the venture became, the more this problem became pronounced, and the more it cost to solve. If communication leads to disagreement over meaning of words, how can you tell that the teams are in sync? How could you possibly assess and manage the risk of planning one thing, then being delivered another?

Disagreement about who meant what, while working on new ideas, may seem a straightforward issue to solve. Let’s get together and talk it through. But you first need to detect disagreement, then spend time solving it. You might detect it late, after damage is done. Handling it means more communication, not less. Could you have avoided this?

When you know that there is a risk for this kind of disagreement to occur, how do you detect it? Moreover, how do you detect it early, when it involves fewer people, before more is invested, and may only have affected inconsequential decisions? How can you make detection and correction part of a routine, instead of just hoping it will all go well?

Is Disagreement an Anomaly?

There’s “new” in the term New Concept Networks. The focus is on new concepts, those which are invented to fit specific purposes when we design and build new products, services, systems.

Disagreement about new concepts is quite different from disagreement established concepts.

When we disagree on established concepts, there is a reference that we can look up, to settle our differences and reach a common understanding. This could be a dictionary, an encyclopedia, a terminology accepted in a domain — something that we can both accept, along with others, as an authoritative source.

However, when we disagree on new concepts, then there will be no authoritative source, someone other than the two of us, or a passive source — a book, database, knowledge base, or otherwise — which we can both go to. Instead, we have to create and define the new concept.

This is exactly what was done in the logistics venture, where we had a new and our own “load” and “shipment” concepts, among many others.

The same happened in other businesses I was involved in during the last decade: I was in teams which were tasked with inventing, creating, testing, delivering, and running new products, services, systems which targeted specific opportunities and problems in various industries. We were coming up with new concepts, and had to make specific definitions for them — part of it was so that we can agree internally on what to do with and about them, the other part being that we have to be clear how our innovation differed from what was already available.

Disagreement over established concepts and disagreement over new concepts are two different kinds of anomalies. The former signals the need to point everyone to the authoritative reference, which provides the agreed-upon concept. The latter begs a different question: Is disagreement a signal that the concept in question should change? And if so, how do we change it so as to avoid disagreement later?

The key point is that disagreement over established concepts signals an anomaly, something to detect and correct without changing the concept, while disagreement over new concepts is part of their formation, that is, is a step in the creation of such concepts, and in their maturing up to the moment when they become accepted by, and thereby established in a community. At that point, there is an authoritative source, an accepted definition, and disagreement is an anomaly.