Managing constructive disagreement

I am a big fan of constructive disagreement as you may have noted from a previous entry Working with sceptics to new practices.

To understand why you need to see how we usually consume information. For example, if you come across the statement:

Alcohol boils at 82C

What is the chance that you will stop whatever you are doing and confirm this fact?

Now imagine if you were in the middle of an argument with someone about which temperature to set your distiller, they say 78C you say 82C. Now, what is the chance you will actually take the time to research on this piece of data?

You see, arguments help us kick in our reasoning, Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber in their paper Why do humans reason? Arguments for an argumentative theory state:

Our hypothesis is that the function of reasoning is argumentative. It is to devise and evaluate arguments intended to persuade. Reasoning so conceived is adaptive given the exceptional dependence of humans on communication and their vulnerability to misinformation.

Now obviously being in the middle of a disagreement is no fun, in this entry, we will be looking at what I think are some good practices to manage profitable disagreements.

What is the history of the team

Every team has a history. Sometimes you find yourself in a situation where some members of the team have nothing but vile for their colleagues. You can usually tell by the thinly veiled contempt remarks being thrown around.

In this kind of situation, no argument is worth even pursuing, your focus at this point in time should be in fixing the broken relationship.

It is no use trying to establish who is right, simply focus on forgiveness and the need to cooperate before anything meaningful can be done.

Keep calm

People generally have two natural conflict management strategies. One camp can be described as conflict seekers the other as avoiders.

The seekers have no qualms about speaking out their minds while avoiders will seek to preserve the relationship.

Personally, I am an avoider, I prefer it when everything is going smoothly and see no need for an argument for arguments sake. Yet I understand always avoiding conflict is the route to becoming a doormat.

It is imperative you understand your own disposition as well as your team members’. In this way, you can manage unproductive behaviors when they rear their ugly heads.

From seekers you can expect:

  • Public ridicule or insult of the other party
  • Shouting over the other decisions
  • Strong arming

From the avoiders you can expect:

  • Storming out of the meeting
  • Agreement without commitment (worse than disagreement)
  • Disengagement

Furthermore, don’t let yourself get lost to anger. Yes, it usually gets everyone in tow but at the cost of psychological safety.

Have some ground rules

You can not manage disagreement by fiat. Even if you get everyone to agree with you, what you now have is compliance not commitment. Even worse, you can find yourself dealing with a full blown mutiny.

Most developers are already sticklers for doing things right. Thus when there is a point to be made, avoid mystique about where you are coming from.

Focus on the process of arriving at decisions rather than the decisions. There is a reason rule of the law works better than the wisest of kings

Some sensible ground rules would be:

  • Don’t interrupt a speaker
  • Don’t use the phone or laptop as the other person is speaking
  • Always respect meeting times

Maintain participation

A disengaged individual literally sucks the energy out of the group. It is simply more effective to have the person not in the room at all.

I find one of the greatest joys in this world is intellectual communion with peers on matters of substance. I believe as long as you keep the conversation meaningful, there will be participation.

With that said, some people just don’t do well in big groups. In particular, you may end up with a situation where only the ideas from extroverts are brought to the fore and argued out.

To bring in the more silent introverts, you may need a different form of participation, say by having people either split up into small groups of two or three to discuss or write out their opinion on a piece of paper and send it to the front.

How do you deal with disagreement within your own teams? Talk to me in the comment section below or on my twitter @jchex

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How to communicate your release plan

A release plan is simply the dates you expect to deliver on major milestones for your project.

The beauty of scrum and its sister methodologies is there isn’t too much ceremony around this information.

Really, once you get past trivial projects, you very quickly realize what is to be built is not very well understood. Any plan you come up with that ignores this fact is guaranteed to become a source of pain in the future.

I see planning as a search for value, if well done, it helps us answer the most important question for any software team. What should we build?

Its a consideration of the features, resources available and important dates. This then illuminates a possible path for development.

I find it ridiculous that some people write a detailed document complete with dates and then think they are done with it all and no further revisions are needed. A release plan should reflect the current context. This means the format you choose should be one that helps you best express your most current thoughts.

In this entry, I will be looking at some of the formats I have found useful for communicating release plans.

Outcome buckets

In a previous entry, I talked about Why I don’t assign deadlines by date

For context here is how tasks bucketed into weeks would look like.

Well, as it turns out, planning your tasks as such is also really good for presentation. You can very easily get a sense of when you expect things to be completed.

Even better, the system communicates a level of uncertainty, because you don’t have an exact date for any of the tasks, you know it can be delivered on any date within the bucket and the plan would still be true.

For highly uncertain outcomes, you can increase the size of an individual bucket, say to 1 month. This communicates to all stakeholders there is much more risk to the outcome but we will get it done early if we can.

Spreadsheets

Maybe it’s my finance background talking, but I must say I love spreadsheets!

I find it to be one of the most powerful tools to establish coherence of thought within whatever your team is working on.

As part of our communication kit, spreadsheets allow us to play around with the quantitative bits of our plan. For example, if we need to model what would happen if a story point takes 5 days to develop as opposed to 3 days, it would be trivial to do so with the tool.

There is a perception in the business world anything on Excel is more serious than on a goofy tool like Trello. The perception is wrong but since its there, why not make use of it?

Gantt charts

A Gantt chart is a staple of the project management industry. They are highly visual and easy to understand. As you can tell from the fact am using a stock image here, I am not the biggest fan of them.

TeamGantt sample
TeamGantt sample

 

The problem I have with Gantt charts is it doesn’t communicate the uncertainty inherent in any software project. Furthermore, when a date changes, you don’t immediately see how such a change escalates across all other tasks and further how the other outcomes are now more likely to take more time.

Not all of it is gloom and doom, because of its visual nature, its far easier for non-techies to grok it over say a spreadsheet.

Furthermore, for a high ceremony executive, a Gantt chat will likely fit better with the rest of the reports they have to go through for the rest of the day.

How do you communicate your own release plans? Talk to me in the comment section below or on my twitter @jchex

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Why you should always have an explicit agenda

I started my journey into the world of programming using PHP. Then there were no regular meetups in the community or at the very least I did not know of any.

Being one of the most popular languages of the day, it did not make sense to me why this was not happening, so I made a call for the first event. This was the first time I was organizing a community event, was not sure how it was going to go but my purpose was clear, meet and discuss all things PHP.

The turn out was good, the session started and essentially I said, welcome and discuss!

Nothing happened, everyone just stared at me blankly.

After a few painful minutes, Kirui, my boss at the time, swooped in to save the session. He took over and on the board wrote:

What will do for the next year?

What kind of events are we interested in?

What speakers are we interested in?

As if by magic, this constraint on what is to be discussed infused the session with energy and I learned a valuable lesson, one in which I hope to pass on to new group leaders today.

The group has now over a thousand members who communicate regularly on telegram and meetup.com

In this entry, we will be looking at why your meetings should have an explicitly stated agenda.

Provides clarity and support to the meeting purpose

A meeting without a purpose is a useless one. The purpose of the meeting answers the question, why are we having this meeting?

Even if you have one, you need to know when you have been successful in the meeting. This means you not only need the why you also need the how.

An agenda communicates your plan of action to meet the purpose.

In this way, you are able to iron out any inconsistencies within the group and have an objective way of knowing when you are done. No one likes 2-hour discussion sessions.

Help in self-governance

Life is what it is, at times you may need to step out of the meeting midway, perhaps leave someone else to deputize you. A clear and agreed on agenda means you have the confidence to do this and when you come back, find the meeting is still on track.

What I have come to realize about good teams is they give you leverage, allowing you to do 10X or 50X what you could do by yourself. But the only way to achieve this is if you are in alignment.

For directors, ie your direct reports are managers themselves, it is useful to thrash out what their agendas with their reports will look like. In this way, you get more clear and consistent results without having to attend each and every single meeting.

Agendas are not meant to be dictated from on high. By having a short discussion on what the agenda items should be, you reinforce within them the mindset they are in charge and you get viewpoints which would otherwise be inaccessible to you.

Understand when the agenda needs to change

There is a saying by Lewis Carol:

If you don't know where you are going, any road will get you there

Even as you run your meeting, you must remember, the agenda serves the purpose of the meeting and not the other way around.

An explicit agenda by definition specifies what is not to be covered. This provides a chance for the team to tell you what you may be missing and just as importantly what need not be there.

You then have the chance to remove what is not absolutely necessary to achieve your purpose.

Meetings should be time-boxed, if the allocated time is 30 minutes and you realize there is absolutely no way you can cover everything, then reduce the scope, remove some items from the agenda.

With an implicit agenda, such value budgeting is not possible, so what happens is you either blow past the end time or worse cover only the first items with no concern to their value in relation to the purpose.

Do you normally have a stated out agenda at the start of your meetings?

Talk to me in the comment section below or on my twitter @jchex

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