Situation: False Consensus

"I think we all agree here."

The team comes to some agreement (on direction or approach, for example) but doesn’t really understand the underlying assumptions or the downstream implications. If they understood those, they might not agree.

The effect: A false consensus may move the project forward, leading to more challenging conflicts later when the underlying assumptions come to light.

The challenge: Since everyone agrees, it may be difficult to detect that this is a problem.

Pattern: Small Victory

Do a small project (a pilot or proof of concept) to help other teams or organizations understand the value or the purpose of a larger program. Like the “Make it Real” pattern, by doing a pilot project, the team has an opportunity to experience the execution of a particular strategy or direction. By implementing at a small scale, the team can extract lessons learned to set them up for a larger endeavor. This small victory serves as a model for subsequent projects.

Use when:

  • You’ve identified a strategy or direction, but need to get further buy-in.

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Pattern: Change the metaphor

Employ a different metaphor for exploring the situation. People typically use war as a metaphor for talking about conflict. Through this metaphor, we come to expect winners and losers, offense and defense, and strategies of shock and awe. The anticipation of conflict, when positioned akin to war, makes it inevitably unproductive.

Resolving Conflicts at Work offers two other metaphors: 

  • Conflict as opportunity: Position the conflict as a problem that needs solving collaboratively.
  • Conflict as journey: Position the conflict as an ongoing process, allowing you to “transcend the idea that you are trapped in your conflict”. “Journeys create expectations and anticipations of growth, self-improvement, awareness, and forgiveness.”

Use when:

  • The language used to describe the conflict is limited to winners/losers and us/them.

Pattern: Microscope/Macroscope

Force yourself to look at a situation from both a macro and micro view. It can be hard to consider a situation from multiple perspectives. Through these lenses, however, nuances of the situation reveal themselves. New and different perspective on a situation gives you an opportunity to re-evaluate the conflict, and determine whether the conflict is truly stalling a project.

Use when:

  • You’re having trouble seeing the situation from any perspective besides your own.

Self-Awareness: Faith

Realize how much your trust of someone (or something) is driven by faith, not by experience. We are wired to believe things we want to be true, and aren’t always “rescued” by our rational side. That is, the bullsh*t detector doesn’t always ring loud enough to overwhelm our desire to believe in our colleagues. Decisions driven by faith can lead to conflict when performance or quality doesn’t meet our expectations. 

Pattern: Pick one thing

Unpack a conflict by picking one aspect and focusing only on that. Sometimes, conflict is caused because the situation consists of many overlapping aspects. Layered agendas, objectives, problems, and requirements can lead to conflict when team members don’t have clear priorities. By picking one thing to focus on, you can eliminate some of the noise, and use that to drive other problems.

Use when:

  • Performance suffers due to lack of focus.

Pattern: List assumptions

Create a list of assumptions behind the situation. Sometimes, different people are making different assumptions about responsibilities, parameters, constraints, objectives, or anything driving creative work. Writing a list of assumptions brings them into focus, and encourages team members to ask questions, validate the assumptions. 

Use when:

  • Team members are not performing as expected, delivering work that doesn’t address the problem.

Pattern: Draw pictures

Use pictures to communicate situations and solutions. Countless books describe the power of communicating visually, so there’s no need to validate it yet again here. You can use that power to bridge the gap between people who aren’t communicating effectively.

Use when you need to:

  • Define the problem
  • Validate constraints or parameters
  • Highlight specific issues
  • Establish a design direction
  • Define a plan or approach
  • Assign responsibilities

Pattern: Offer alternatives

Prepare several options for moving forward with an easy way to compare and contrast. It’s easier for people to select from a small number of options than it is for them to zero-in on an approach without a starting point.

You might want to compare approaches for:

  • Design directions
  • Models for explaining users or site structures
  • Next steps on a project
  • Project plans

The important part of offering options is presenting them in parallel for easy comparison. Select key criteria for comparison: you’ll need to anticipate the ways your team wants to choose one and incorporate them prominently in the comparison. Alignment with goals? Cost? Level of effort? Timing? Emphasis on different requirements? Emphasis on user groups? There are any number of ways your options can vary, so make sure they’re easy to compare.

Use when:

  • Conflict is caused by ambiguous direction and participants are at a loss for determining appropriate approach.