Teams Shouldn't Need to Reach Consensus

You might say I’m quite an argumentative person…. I enjoy nothing more than a debate with an intelligent person, during which I can educate them, learn something and push forward whatever it is that’s being debated.

This is an extremely important part of being in a team; the collective intelligence of a team is (or at least should be) significantly higher than any one individual so it follows that through debate and collaboration, the productivity / quality of output of a team can be improved. There’s always value in a fresh pair of eyes, and someone that can ask the ‘stupid’ questions and ‘what-ifs’, that can ensure an idea is fully thought through ahead of being actioned.

It’s often the case that one or more of the individuals contributing has emotional ownership of the thing being debated, leading to the potential for them to be defensive and to feel that any improvements or negative feedback reflect badly on them. It’s important to make it clear to everyone that this isn’t the case, that it’s the team that own these things and that improving them is also the responsibility of the whole team. It’s equally important to make sure that this is also understood / followed by other stakeholders in the organisation (especially management).

Here are some things I think are important in these types of debates, to help keep them productive:

  • Don’t let it be personal; talking about ‘it’ directed at the idea, rather than ‘you / he / she / they’ the people implementing it can help to focus in the right places.
  • Keep it professional; the tone of voice and volume being used can influence the conversation and how it’s perceived as much as what’s being said. It’s often difficult if people are really passionate about it, but try to keep emotions in check.
  • Don’t fight a corner; the aim is to improve the result, not to win. I often switch sides multiple times during the course of a debate, and it’s a good idea to force those involved to do the same to improve this too.
  • Make choices based on the evidence if you can; things are rarely black and white; metrics, effort to implement, cost and associated risks may all help you, and it’s often a good idea to optimise these variables. If you’re torn between sides, one of which is expensive / slow to validate and the other cheap / quick, go with the quick one first. If there’s something else that can be done to provide more evidence, that may be the correct course of action.
  • Don’t procrastinate on a decision; lets face it, we make very few life or death, or irreversible decisions. It’s better to make the decision, execute quickly, validate and learn. The learning from the ‘wrong’ decision can provide further evidence for continuing to move things forward.
  • Make sure everyone that has an opinion is heard; this is super important – don’t exclude anyone from the process, especially those that will be involved in the implementation. It’s critical to make sure those that have an opinion feel they’re heard, and that if those opinions aren’t being followed that there are legitimate reasons why. One of the quickest ways to foster an environment where debate doesn’t happen is to just ignore peoples ideas!
  • When the decision is made, rally around it to make it happen. Moping, complaining or even worse actively working against the decision leads can significantly affect the morale of the team.