Dissent Cards

Create an environment in which people can disagree in a productive way.
Contributed by

Chris Baynham Hughes

Published June 25, 2021

What Is Dissent Cards?

It's a way to encourage greater diversity of ideas and increase the psychological safety necessary for disagreement to occur productively within the group. This practice is taken from L. David Marquet's book, 'Leadership is language'.

Why Do Dissent Cards?

During the options phase, the aim is to critically assess the options generated before producing the hypotheses and moving to commitment. Doing this objectively allows the team to regularly 'disagree and commit' to action

This practice ensures the problem is looked at from different angles and encourages the team to focus on being curious rather than compelling. The practice not only pays off in the moment, but for future discussions within the team, by engendering the psychological safety necessary to think more critically and contribute all their ideas, not just the ones they think others will agree with.

This practice is not only relevant for new teams, but also for teams that have worked together for a long time and are finding themselves generating fewer outliers and their views are consistently clustering together.

How to do Dissent Cards?

During a session where you're looking to generate options, hand out a card at random to each member of the team. The cards can take any form, but they indicate a role; either you have free choice or you must dissent. Marquet uses red and black cards on a ratio of one red to every five black.

During the discussion of an option, anybody with a red card must dissent. The card makes it safe to do so. The individual is not just being obtuse, it was the card that forced them to do it, it's their role!

If you received a black card you can still dissent if you wish, however you have the freedom to choose.

Critical to this practice is that those with the black cards must then be curious rather than compelling during the discussion; Open to the idea that the dissenter may have a valid point.

This practice works especially well to develop psychological safety if nobody knows how many red cards are out there, nor which participant(s) has the red card(s). Within a few sessions of this practice the group will move from feeling that to dissent is hard, to feeling it's not only easy to dissent, but doing so will be valued by the team. In many respects this practice shares characteristics of The six thinking hats approach by Edward de Bono; in that it encourages participants to think from a specific view point.

Take this practice to the next level:

Ensuring the practice is sustained requires the response to the dissenter to be positive and objective. Try these questions to remain curious:

- "Can you elaborate on what is behind your point of view?"

- "What can you see that the rest of the group has overlooked?"

- "What do you see are the risks here?"

If you're caught without the cards you can still encourage this practice:

- "Ok, we've heard from Jane, I'd now like to hear a challenge to this point of view from somebody in the group"


- "Sarah, could you think of a way to challenge what Jane has just said please?"

- "Ok, we seem to be arriving at a hypothesis here. Before we design an experiment to test it, let's just imagine we skip forward in time and find the outcome is a failure; what reasons could there be for the failure?"

Final Thought:

Remember, just because there is dissent, doesn't mean there is a problem or that certain people must have their way. Use the 'Disagree and Commit' practice to arrive at the best decision for the group, and allow the them to move forward as one to deliver with purpose and passion.

Look at Dissent Cards

Links we love

Check out these great links which can help you dive a little deeper into running the Dissent Cards practice with your team, customers or stakeholders.

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