We are all faced with decisions to make every day. Paper or plastic, regular or decaf, what’s for dinner… so many choices. When we’re alone, we take into account our own feelings, bias and knowledge, and usually come up with some kind of action or response, often because we have to or that guy who really needs a coffee is right behind you. However, once you start adding other people to the decision making process, things start to get muddy. Take, for example, the classic dinner conversation:
Person A: What do you want to get to eat?
Person B: I don’t care, whatever you want is fine.
A: I dunno, either, that’s why I asked you. Well, what about Pizza?
B: Nah, I don’t feel like having pizza.
A: Oh… OK. Well what do you feel like?
B: I dunno, you pick.
I’m sure just about everyone has been on one side or the other of that conversation. The thing is, this conversation happens all the time in every group of people. Observe:
Teammate 1: I propose we spend an extra hour each week doing research on new methods of data access.
Teammate 2: I’ll go with whatever the team says.
Teammate 3: Doesn’t matter to me.
Teammate 4: I agree with 2.
Teammate 5: <Crickets chirp>
And so on and so on…
So what happens here? Well, either the team goes with the suggestion, based on one person’s input, or no one feels strongly enough about something, so the question lingers. Let’s look at what can happen in these cases:
- The team goes with the suggestion, and they like it: The team will be more willing to go with the suggestions of Teammate 1 without thinking critically about it. The team has given up ownership and self-organization to one member. Teammate 1 may feel the burden of being “the guy/gal with the ideas”, and stress over needing to come up with all the plans.
- The team goes with the suggestion, and it fails: The team can engage in finger pointing at Teammate 1, after all it was his/her idea, and I never said I actually agreed. Teammate 1 feels called out, leading to rifts in the team, or causing him/her to withhold new ideas from the team, even if they’re good. Other members of the team see how Teammate 1 was treated, and are now wary of putting their ideas out there.
- Lacking motivation, the team maintains the status quo: If there was a potential issue, it continues unaddressed. Teammate 1 is left in limbo, unsure whether to push forward with his/her idea, or to drop it. Teammate 1 feels disrespected, since no one was willing to consider his/her idea long enough to form an opinion. All teammates recognize group apathy, and choose not to share new ideas.
For Agile teams who want to be high-functioning, this is a major problem. There is a lot of psychology behind why, as humans, we prefer not to make decisions. You can find that on the web, so I’m not going to go into that here. In my experience, however there is one major force in play:
People fear giving their opinion. By giving an opinion, you open yourself to rejection. You open yourself to conflict. You open yourself to looking weak because you are ill informed. And you open yourself to the worst thing ever: the possibility of being wrong. Nobody wants to be wrong. When you are wrong, it’s even harder to admit it. Sure there are other possible reasons, like a lack of respect for the questioner (so much so that you can’t be bothered to have an opinion), or being too distracted to answer fully (generally better to state as such), but generally when faced with a normal decision to be made, if we choose not to give our opinion, it is out of fear.
People feel like by saying “I’ll go with the team” they’re providing tacit approval to ideas their teammates come up with. In reality, all they’re doing is passing the buck and hoping someone else will do the thinking for them. It’s a disservice to the the both the person asking, and the person answering.
So what do you do if you really don’t have an opinion? Well, communicate and negotiate. For example, “I don’t really understand what an extra hour of research will do for us. What do you think we have to gain from this?” Once you understand the question, do your teammate the service of giving your honest opinion. If you disagree, have an open and honest conversation as to why. If you really agree, give a firm agreement, and stand behind your statement. Nothing is gained by delaying conflict if it needs to happen, and much can be lost if feelings are hurt.
The best thing? You can apply this anywhere! Let’s look at the ideal way of handling the “Dinner Problem”.
Person A: What do you want to do for dinner?
Person B: I hadn’t really thought about it, do you have any suggestions? What do you feel like having?
A: I don’t really want anything fancy, quick and easy for me. What about you?
B: I’m still not really sure what I feel like having, can we go somewhere with a lot of choices?
A: Quick, easy and lots of choices? You know, there’s that food truck night at the local school tonight, why don’t we go there?
B: OK, I can agree with that. Sounds like an adventure!
Well, that seemed a bit too easy, maybe we can dream about that last one…