Move Along, Nothing to See Here

“So why was the customer release such a disaster?”

“Bob changed the code without consulting anyone.”

“So no one knew what he did?”

“Oh no, we knew. The rest of the team wasn’t willing to confront him.”

Sometimes things are not as they seem. In this case, the original question was around helping a company understand why they were having trouble shipping working software. Managers at the company had many theories. Talking to the folks who are, as it were, in the trenches, revealed the real problem: they were so conflict averse that no one was willing to say anything when one team member made arbitrary changes to the code. Even the nominal manager wouldn’t say anything because, after all, this was supposed to be a “self-directed” team. Better to blame mysterious bugs in the code than actually address the fact that the team couldn’t direct itself out of a paper bag.

In an eerily similar situation, I was speaking to a senior vice president at a mid-sized family owned business. He’d been with the company for decades, and was telling me angrily about how one of the other VPs had very rudely failed to attend an important presentation he was giving.

“When did this happen?” I asked, trying desperately to remember which presentation he was referring to.

“1987!” was the reply.

“1987?” I repeated rather stupidly, thinking I must have misheard him.

“That’s right.”

“You mean, 24 years ago?”

“Yes!”

Yes indeed. This senior executive at a respectable firm was steamed about something that happened over two decades ago. When I later had a chance to delicately ask the other person about the incident in question, he didn’t have a clue what I was referring to. The two were at very different points in their careers at that time, and, well, it should have been over with. It wasn’t, though, and this was causing tension and difficulties getting business done: the least little thing quickly became a cause for major argument. In this case, the problem appeared to be exactly the opposite of the first scenario. Where the first scenario was an almost fanatical devotion to avoiding conflict, the second scenario appeared on the surface to be an equally fanatical desire to engage in conflict.

In the end, of course, both of these scenarios are fundamentally the same:  employees at both companies are refusing to engage in productive debate and neither group has effective methods of ending an argument and coming to a decision. The first group deals with the situation by avoiding any sort of conflict altogether; the second, by hauling out old, irresolvable, issues in order to avoid dealing with anything that might actually matter. Considering that there’s no fire, both groups manage to blow an awful lot of smoke. They also manage to make every decision so unpleasant that everyone involved would rather just move along and decide that there’s nothing to see rather than address the issues.

When it comes to getting productive work done, being able to argue effectively is critical. Effective arguing, in turn, requires agreeing on what you‘re arguing about and having an agreed upon and acceptable method of decision making.

Oddly enough, one of the most common causes of ongoing arguments it that each person is actually arguing for something different. They all think they are arguing about the same thing, but, since no one ever bothered to check, they don’t realize just how different their visions are. In one case, the resulting struggle almost ripped the company apart; the fighting didn’t end until I sat both sides down and managed to get each one to state what they were actually talking about. At that point, they realized that they were not nearly so far apart as they’d thought. It was, quite literally, one of those, “Why didn’t you say so?” “Why didn’t you ask?” moments.

Of course, even if you’ve agreed roughly on the vision, if the method of decision making isn’t accepted by everyone, the argument never ends; it only takes breaks, reemerging to haunt meetings rather like Dracula emerging from the grave. Because we live in a democratic society, the natural instinct of most organizations is to call for a vote to end a discussion. Unfortunately, voting does not end discussions: voting prolongs discussions. When the vote is called before everyone is ready to commit to the outcome, all that happens is that the losers focus on winning the next vote. If that means undermining the project to prove their point, they’re willing to do it.

Before voting, therefore, it pays to check for consensus: not unanimity, but a simple verification that each person present feels that they understand the choices, they’ve had their questions answered, had their opinions heard, and can support whatever outcome the group chooses. Only then can you vote.

As much work as it may appear to be to reach consensus, it’s less than paying the price of ignoring issues or letting them return like zombies, sucking the brains out of your organization.

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