A change of perspective is worth 80 IQ points. ~ Alan Kay

Recently I was faced with a familiar situation at work. As I saw it, my team was pulling me off a bug fix in favour of shipping a new feature. I applied my normal pushback by referencing The Joel Test, referencing Rapid Development, pointing to the Agile Manifesto, and making a principled argument for quality-in-service-of-long-term-velocity. At the end of the interaction, I felt frustrated, thwarted, and demoralized - it seemed liked the team was folding to pressure instead of making a principled decision.

As I stewed on this, it occurred to me that arguing was no longer effective. I was in the midst of a perpetual problem in the workplace. This reminded me that perpetual problems require a different tact because debate fails. I remembered "Dreams in Opposition" from The Gottman Institute, and I decided to give their approach a try in a workplace context.

I asked my tech-lead for a 20-minute meeting, about the team's choice. I explained that I would take the role of an interviewer, would keep my perspective out of the way, and would work to understand the decision. The result was fabulous. The questions that I asked are my own workplace adjustment of the questions that the Gottman Institute recommends for romantic relationships.

  • What do you believe about this problem?
  • What do you feel about it?
  • Does this relate to your work history in some way?
  • Tell me why this is so important to you.
  • What do you need?
  • What would be your ideal dream/goal here?
  • Is there a fear or disaster scenario in not having this decision honoured?
  • Is there a deeper purpose or goal in this?

The answers provided me with the missing context that I needed to understand the decision. Once I had that, the decision made total sense to me. I doubt I would have surfaced this information from continuing to argue my point. It turned out that the "new feature" that I though we were adding was in-fact a fix for an extremely problematic bug in our system. That hadn't come across in the original conversation, and I probably started arguing too early. My team and I were very much on the same page about quality-in-service-of-velocity.

Here are a few observations about what worked in the meeting.

  • It felt awkward for me. I've never asked probing questions like this of a colleague. I didn't mention my awkwardness, though, and instead maintained a professional stance during the interview.
  • At the beginning of the conversation, I tried to short-circuit any perceived attempt at forced intimacy by saying, "If a question seems awkward or too intimate, lets ignore it and move to the next question. I don't want any of that forced intimacy at work bullshit." I said this with a smile on my face, and I swore on purpose, because I wanted to keep things light and to avoid pseudo-psychotherapy relationship building.
  • I framed the conversation as an interview, so my technical lead new in advance that this would be a one-sided conversation that was about me learning.
  • I regularly checked-in with my understanding by using the "reflection of content" active listening technique: "If I understand correctly, what you're saying is that..."

I am grateful to have a tech lead who was open to meeting in the way. Finding a new approach to resolving this conflict probably wouldn't have happened without the civility and respect we show each other at my current workplace, and I am grateful for that aspect of my team. Woot.

Some colleagues chimed in over Twitter about other approaches to this perpetual problem... for instance, give up on perfection and instead target 80%!