The response to Jay Feasters recent inauguration as the Flames GM has been ambivalence at best. While the move away from the Darryl Sutter era has been roundly considered the right move, some have pointed to Feaster’s draft and trade track record in Tampa as areas of concern. The former Lightning GM has made some indications recently, however, that this move may be a good one for the organization.

In my series on the rise and fall of Darryl Sutter, I noted that his early success led to a cult of personality in town, where Sutter became a sort of unquestioned, autocratic ruler within the organization. I posited this sort of insular, rigidly top-down structure led to organizational biases, blindspots and groupthink, resulting in Sutter’s eventual fall from grace.

Dan Gardner recently wrote about this topic in an article called the trouble with decisive leadership:

The organization such a leader creates is obvious. It’s a pyramid, with the Great Man on top. Information flows up, giving the Great Man an Olympian view of all that surrounds him. With this, and his bold vision of the future, the Great Man makes decisions and issues orders to the staff immediately below him, who pass the orders down, until the whole great edifice is working together, united, to implement the Great Man’s strategy.

The problem with the Great-Man-On-A-Pyramid model begins with that beguiling word “certainty.” Like a man wandering the desert, we are psychologically drawn to it. Alas, it’s a mirage. The world is simply too complex for anything to be certain. Literally. Listen to scientists. Even when discussing claims supported by strong evidence, they never talk of “certainty,” only degrees of uncertainty. The leader who is certain isn’t a visionary. He’s a fool.

Darryl Sutter was never short on certainty. As Gardner implies, however, things can be too complex for one man to competently manage – particularly when informational modes in an organization become skewed to reflect the leaders desired outcomes rather than reality as they so often do beneath overbearing leadership.

In contrast, Jay Feaster has stated explicitly in Calgary press conferences that he likes to encourage input from other decision-makers. He has also been self-deprecating and willing to admit past errors, which suggests he’s aware of his fallibility but willing to adapt.

Assurances to the media don’t necessarily guarantee the team won’t slip back into the old mode of organization however. There are ways the club can deter groupthink and continue to foster an environment where open communication and multiple perspectives though; primary amngst which is to purposefully foster conflict. It sounds counter-intuitive, but in order to inculcate optimal decision-making an organization should actually program conflict into their processes.

Richard Crosier and Robert Schwenk discussed methods of programming conflict in their 1990 paper Agreement and thinking alike: ingredients for poor decision making. One of the methods they discuss is called “the devil’s advocate”. As they note this involves;

an individual or group be assigned the role of critic. It needs to be clear that the criticism must not be taken personally, but is part of the organizational decision process. The devil’s advocate is assigned to identify potential pitfalls and problems with a proposed course of action. The issue could relate to strategic planning, new product development, innovation, project development, or of other problems not amenable to programmed solutions. A formal presentation to the key decision makers by the devil’s advocate raises potential concerns. Evidence needed to address the critique is gathered and the final decision is made and monitored.

Agreement for the sake of agreement is avoided if the devil’s advocate is implemented properly. Premises and assumptions are challenged and the basis of each decision must be robustly defended in the face of challenges. “Programming” conflict as a matter of organizational policy also ensures disagreement isn’t taken personally.

This is generally true of large institutions or organizations dealing with complex problems of course. The Flames, however, are a club that until recently operated on decidedly opposite principles under Darryl Sutter. Under Feaster, the franchise has a chance to sweep away the vestiges of the inefficient “great man on top of the pyramid” structure and foment a more open, conflict-friendly management team.

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