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One more time, disagreeing well

Fred Engel

Westerly Consulting


Far too many organizations have not established effective mechanisms to resolve the conflict that inevitably occurs when multiple people have different ideas about what to do next. As a consultant, I often get hired to assess engineering organizations and to itemize their strengths and weaknesses. What I see over and over is the inability of people to get their issues resolved without having to resort to the variety of guerrilla tactics that undermine the entire fabric of the organization. Given that these are solvable problems, it is hard to understand why so many organizations do not address this issue and solve the problem.  The cost of inefficiency in these organizations must be very high, as there is a great deal of dysfunction.

The blame lies squarely with the top management of the organization. Management often seems to assume that the organization knows how to make decisions when in fact it does not. The organizational structures are usually not in place to make decision-making happen quickly. In addition, the individuals in the organization often do not have the skills necessary to engage in conflict resolution constructively. 

This lack of smooth decision-making leads to great frustration among the employees. The academic literature has shown that stress levels increase with reduced control. Not being able to get decisions made means reduced control. If you want your employees to be energized and engaged, help them get learn how to get decisions made rapidly.

People just do not know how to disagree in a constructive manner that leads to a win-win solution. Once trained in the methodologies of win-win negotiations and supported by effective decision-making processes, the organization is able to move more rapidly and efficiently. It is hard to imagine a greater productivity gain than to cause the people in the organization to make decisions effectively and efficiently.

There are two parts to making good decisions:

Decision-Making Governance

Building products requires the involvement of a lot of people in the decisions that need to be made along the way. It is usually very hard for a single individual to know enough to make all the decisions alone. Decision-Making Governance is the processes and rules for getting decisions made that are bought into and have staying power.

There are different types of decisions that are made in any product environment. Defining the hierarchy of decisions that need to be made and the relationship of the decision sets to each other is a good basis for creating boards. Some typical decision categories are:

1.   Strategic Product Direction Decisions

2.   Product investment decisions to fulfill the strategic objectives

3.   Product definition and capability decisions relating to specific releases of product

4.   Release decisions of when the product is ready to go to market

5.   Detailed product feature decisions (e.g. Look and Feel)

When defining the boards and hierarchies for each of these decisions, it is important to clearly define the autonomy that people have within the board and the appeal process to the next higher level board. In this way, people will understand which decisions they are allowed to make.  Defining how deadlocks are broken is a very important point to define.

There seems to be a reluctance to define a strong leader capable of breaking deadlocks. The reluctance to empower such an individual comes from the political side effects of the rest of the team members who want to have that power for themselves. It takes strong management to be able to put in place a leader that is good at building consensus, but could also make decisions. The board must have teeth to force compliance.

Lastly, upper management needs to take steps that assure people in the organization to treat the governance boards seriously and work within the board structure. Far too often, people avoid the boards, do what they want, and undermines the entire structure. It takes vigilance to make this work.

Conflict Resolution

Conflict in any organization is unavoidable. Working in and organization means interacting with other people in resolving the inevitable differences. Since most people do not have strong skills in conflict resolution, it is incumbent on the organization to train people in how to effectively resolve interpersonal conflict. Many organizations do not develop norms of behavior or train people in those norms to allow conflict resolution to occur in a relatively uniform manner across the organization. The result is a mix of behaviors that create confusion, unhappiness, frustration, and most of all inefficiency.

It is up to the leaders of the organization to show people the way to behave in situations requiring conflict resolution. Leaders need to:

1.   Establish the rules of conflict resolution

2.   Train employees in the approved processes of the organization

3.   Behave, themselves, in the style that they've established

4.   Cause the organization to behave in the style established

Many examples exist of companies that have found a way to embed conflict resolution and problem solving into their cultural DNA. The styles that I think work best are styles that cause people to be able to put the facts on the table and resolve the conflict one-on-one in an adult like manner, minimizing game playing . Two such cultures are Intel's (Confrontation Andy Grove 1984.pdf)  and Bridgewater's (http://www.bwater.com/home/culture--principles.aspx). Both put very strong emphasis on being truthful and engaging in egoless discussion to get to the resolution. There are other styles to choose from, one only needs to search on the web to find books, blogs, articles, consultants, and training materials for alternative points of view. The important thing is to find the right culture for you, define it, train people in it, and cause real behavioral change.

If I haven’t convinced you I hope to at least convince you to read the old classic "Getting To Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In" by Fisher and Ury. There are just too many people who do not understand the concept of win-win. Reading that book may convince you to do more for your organization.


Send comments to: fred@westerlyconsulting.com