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Esther Derby helps create great work places where people can do their best work and make products their customers value. Not so very long ago, she made her living writing code. She's co-author of Behind Closed Doors Secrets of Great Management and Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great. You can read more of her thoughts on management, organization, teams, and agile methods at www.estherderby.com Esther is a DZone MVB and is not an employee of DZone and has posted 73 posts at DZone. You can read more from them at their website. View Full User Profile

Best at Argument != Best Ideas

01.22.2013
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I was talking to my friend Penny the other day about a team she coaches.

There’s a really smart guy on the team. I’ll call him Bob. Most of the time Bob is an asset to the team. But when the team needs to decide on a technical solution under time pressure, he’s not.

“But Bob is a smart guy,” you may say. “How is it he’s not an asset? Won’t he have the best ideas?”

When it comes time to solve a technical problem, Bob is always first to offer his idea. Then, Bob dominates the conversation with a constant stream of words, leaving no opening for another to insert facts, ideas, points of view. When someone does find a voice and interrupts the torrent, Bob cuts him off, declaring “I’m not finished.”

When Bob does finish, and another team members asks a question, Bob implies that the other person doesn’t get it, and might be too stupid to see the brilliance of Bob’s idea.

When another team member proposes a different idea, Bob shreds it. He points out the flaws in the other person’s idea, while pointing to the strengths of his own idea.

When he does let others speak, it’s pretty clear that he isn’t listening to learn. Bob is figuring out how to score his next point.

I don’t believe Bob has bad intentions. I believe he wants to be helpful, and believes he is. Bob is helping the team in many ways, but he’s also hurting the team. Here’s how:

1. The team don’t have enough ideas. Due to Bob’s style, there is seldom more than one idea (Bob’s) that receives serious consideration. That’s not enough. Even if Bob is smart, so are the other people on the team. But Bob is the most extraverted and the best at argument and debate. That’s not the same as having the best ideas.

2. Over time, Bob’s style will wear down the other team members. It’s really not terribly satisfying to be browbeaten, or have all your ideas shot down. At some point, other people will stop offering ideas, and acquiesce rather than endure another argument with Bob.

3. As long as Bob’s ideas prevail, others don’t have a chance to develop their ideas.They are deprived the opportunity to learn, think about problems and risks, and increase their capability. Over the long run, that’s bad for the individuals involved, bad for the team, bad for the organization.

Penny has given Bob feedback on the effects of his behavior. It’s made some impact, but when there’s pressure to come up with a solution, Bob–as most people do–falls back on his default behavior. Chances are, Penny won’t get Bob to change that. Bob’s behavior is driven by his natural tendencies, and years of cultural exposure that taught him that competition and argument are the way to find the best ideas.

However, Penny can change the process so that the team has sufficient ideas to consider, and that credible ideas receive due consideration.

Here’s how:

Separate generating ideas, explaining ideas, exploring ideas, and evaluating ideas. As it is now, all of these are mashed together (and done mostly by Bob).

Equalize participation. From what Penny has told me, I suspect Bob is a strong extravert and the other team members are introverts. That means that Bob is very comfortable thinking out loud, and the other team members need a bit of time to organize their thoughts. Before they have time to do that, Bob is on a roll. One way make room for more participation is to start the process with a few minutes of silent brainstorming. Then, ask each person explain (orally or through sketching) the essentials of his or her best idea.

Apply the Rule of Three. If you don’t have at least three ideas, you don’t have enough ideas, and you probably don’t understand the problem. You may end up with deciding the first idea that came up is the best one…but you may not, or you may refine the first idea based on further discussion.

Test for agreement. Some teams get carried away with voting. But when a decisions are routinely highjacked by one individual, it can help to test for agreement using a gradient of agreement or fist of five.

Establish a small set of tests for technical solutions. In this team, some of the tests that make sense might be:

The solution …

  • is the simplest thing that can work.
  • doesn’t add to technical debt.
  • can be implemented in the timeframe required by service level agreements.

Bob may have the best ideas on the team. We don’t really know if that’s the case. No one else’s ideas are fully considered. We do know he doesn’t have a perfect record. Some of his fixes don’t work the first time. Some of his fixes break something else.  If the team had a process to consider and refine ideas, that might not happen as much.

It may sound like it will take more time to separate generating ideas from explaining, exploring, and evaluating them. It may seem like a lot of effort to find more than one idea and test the ideas for soundness and test the level of support for a given idea.

But in years of observing teams, I find that slowing down and separating the steps of the choosing a solution helps the team speed up. A mashup process forced by a dominant individual may appear to save time in the very short-term. That’s seldom true if you account for all the time costs and other effects incurred.

Published at DZone with permission of Esther Derby , author and DZone MVB. (source)

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