This is a transcript of episode 231 of the Troubleshooting Agile podcast with Jeffrey Fredrick and Douglas Squirrel.

“We may disagree but that doesn’t mean we’re going to have another meeting”. Jeffrey and Squirrel discuss what happens when you run out of difficult conversations and consensus isn’t going to happen–and what to do next.

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Listen to this section at 00:11

Squirrel: Welcome back to Troubleshooting Agile. Hi there, Jeffrey.

Jeffrey: Hi, Squirrel. We were talking before the podcast and you shared a topic, an incident that was so off-brand for us I we had to talk about it. Our long time listeners might be shocked by this.

Squirrel: We aim to shock and to please. The story was about a client of mine trying to make a fairly large organizational change, think “agile adoption” and those sorts of things. They had some resistance in part of the organization. There was some folks who really were not ready for the change that the technology team was leading. You can imagine the kind of change that I might be involved in helping to facilitate, and it wasn’t going as well as it could. And then I found myself saying something completely shocking, which we’re about to commit to tape. So you’ll all have blackmail material now. You can play it back to me and say “you claimed this once,” but what I told them to do was to stop having conversations.


Listen to this section at 01:22

Jeffrey: Which is so against our normal advice!

Squirrel: Exactly. I should have told everybody to sit down, because if you’re used to the past 230 episodes of Troubleshooting Agile, we’re always telling people that they should have more conversations, be more transparent, be curious about what other people think. And here I was blithely telling my client to stop having conversations with this part of the organization that was resistant, that didn’t want to be part of the change they were making. But I really thought that was the right thing to do. I checked it with you Jeffrey, and you agreed with me. We’ll see if we can explain it here. But the thinking was that they had had the difficult conversation! They had been really transparent about why they were making the change, what the benefits would be, how these particular agile techniques would really help with problems that the organization had, including this part of the organization. And if you’ve ever seen a five year old running around with hands over their ears shouting to drown you out, that was the experience they were having from the other party. There was no response there that was helping them to understand a legitimate need that needed to be addressed or anything that they could be more transparent about. There was just a fundamental disagreement. This part of the organization really wanted to do things in the way they had been doing it. It worked well for them. It helped them meet their targets. I couldn’t argue, that was good for them. It just didn’t appear to be good for the entire organization. And the organization had spent a bunch of money on me to bring me in to help with the change to these more agile methods. So there was at least one signal that suggested that there was money to be made from moving to this different direction. So my advice was stop having these conversations, stop going back and forth, stop being in the loop and repeatedly listening carefully and being transparent. All the things we’ve been practicing, stop doing that. And after they picked themselves up off their chairs they said “Squirrel, are you sure you feel okay?” And I said, “Yeah, really I do.” And they said, “How do we do that?” So then I went into that. But I’m just curious, Jeffrey, is this the advice you would have given? How would how would you have put it?

Jeffrey: Absolutely. I think it’s really interesting to get to “how.” but let’s leave that to first talk about “why,” because we do tell people to have the conversation. When we talk about having a difficult conversation—I often say a mutual learning conversation—I tell people they can’t aim for agreement. It’s nice when it happens, but there’s no guarantee that two groups of people are going to come together and in the end agree. It often occurs, but not always. So that’s not really the point of the conversation. The point of the conversation in mutual learning terms is “they will understand our reasoning and we will understand theirs.” Now in this case, you describe the trouble department as refusing to engage, but let’s steelman this say they showed up, were responsible in the conversation, had legitimate concerns and it was a case of both parties coming in and sharing in good faith “Here’s how I see things” and “well, here’s how I see things.” Lets just say they both explain their reasoning, intent, all the evidence, and all the reasoning. But fundamentally at the end they just don’t agree. That’s fine! That’s just human. There’s no reason that we should expect people to agree, even when they have all the same evidence. That’s a strength, not a weakness.

Squirrel: And I’m being a little unfair. I was giving the view from my clients, the people I’m coaching, I was giving their view of how the other group was behaving. I suspect if I went and talked to them, they would not perceive themselves “we refuse to understand.” And I suspect they’re right. I think they had just drawn a different conclusion from the same facts and they had access to all the information that the folks I’m coaching had. They had heard that, listened to it, and their response that was received as childish refusal was in fact “look, this just doesn’t work for us. We want to do it this way. This is what will help the business.” And they what they beleived to be really strong arguments. Things about the survival of the company. “We won’t be here. We can’t trade. We can’t make money if we don’t do things this way. So it’s very nice that you want to do all this cool, agile stuff. Sure it makes you feel good. But what we actually have to do over here is the stuff that will keep the board happy and let us make money and keep the investors on board.” I can that was a reasonable position. I didn’t agree with it, but I could see that their reasoning and the way they were presenting it was very sensible from their point of view.

Jeffrey: So now the kind of frustration that people might have that might make them feel like the other person is refusing to listen, is “Look, I repeated my arguments and they still don’t agree, and I’m right!”

Squirrel: This is the signal. This is the symptom.

They Must Not Have Heard Me

Listen to this section at 06:36

Jeffrey: Exactly. Believing that you’re right, believing that people should be convinced. It’s only frustrating if you have the expectation that other people should eventually come to see it the same way you do.

Squirrel: If you find yourself repeating the argument again and again. That’s exactly what they said, “We did what you said, Squirrel. We were transparent and curious and then we were transparent, curious again. And then we were transparent and curious again. What are we supposed to do? How can we be even more transparent and curious?” I said, “Stop, it’s not working.”

Jeffrey: Yeah, exactly. Consensus is not always possible. Agreement is not always possible. If we try to hold ourselves to the view that we only move ahead, we only make changes when everyone agrees, I think that you’re handicapping yourself. Not only that, ultimately you’re abdicating responsibility for your own position and your own professional judgment. If you’re unwilling to move ahead in the area that you’ve been granted authority to make decisions within, if you refuse to do that you’re abdicating responsibility. To me this is when it comes down to “it seems like we’re not going to agree on this. But ultimately, this is my area of responsibility. I’ve heard your concerns and let me test them. Let me say them back to you. Validate that I understand. Yep. I understand your concerns. Here’s why I see it differently. It’s my decision ultimately. It may be the wrong decision. We’ll find out. But this is a decision I’m going to make.”

Squirrel: “Oh, my God, Jeffrey. They might be really unhappy about that. They might scream and yell and tell me that my decision is terrible and going to doom the company and put us out of business.”

Jeffrey: Absolutely they they might do that. If you are the decision maker, this is your call. If it’s not clearly your decision, then the role is to escalate. You say, “well, we don’t agree. How do we make this decision?” And then you might find some place to escalate it. But if it’s clearly within your remit, then I don’t recommend escalating it and recommend instead radiating your intent, telling people, “Look, I’ve made this decision, we’ve had this conversation, here’s what I intend to do” and then move ahead. The other people might choose to escalate it, and it might not move ahead. But make the decision, radiate the intent, and go. This will be familiar from the advice process: this is a model where anyone in a company can make any decision as long as they’ve taken input from everyone affected by thedecision or who has relevant knowledge. So you need to be genuine here in sort of seeking alternate points of view, seeking other other sources of information and incorporating all that information in your decision. But ultimately, it’s your responsibility to make the decision, radiate your intent, and then act.

What Happens After Disagreement

Listen to this section at 09:47

Squirrel: With my clients, what I advised was something that’s actually in between those two, because the situation is one where others have brought me in to help them. They’re on board with the change. So I taught them something which I will now teach listeners, but I have to get everyone’s promise: put your hand over your heart and promise that if you use this technique, you will definitely mention that you are being annoying because the technique is annoying. However, it’s very effective if you make sure to point out that you’re being annoying and you’re sorry about that, but you still need to. Now, the technique is very simple. All you say is, “look, it’s clear we disagree. I look forward to-“ that’s the key phrase, “I look forward to hearing what happens when you escalate that.” So in this situation there was a person that it would be natural to go to who might make an adverse decision. A decision that’s not what the people I’m coaching would like to see. That might be the right decision. That person might have more information than all of us or might be the better position to make that decision. That would be fine. So you really do look forward to it. But of course if you just say, “Well, I look forward to hearing what happens when you take this to so-and-so,” boy does that sound condescending and annoying. So you have to follow it by saying, “Look, I’m not trying to be annoying with that. I know it sounds that way, but my intention is just a genuinely communicate that this sounds like the end of the road. No more transparency and curiosity here. We’ve got all that. We disagree. And I’m going to go ahead, and I invite you to consider a different option.” Of course, sometimes people fold at that point and they don’t escalate. That’s fine. Sometimes they do. This is a live situation so I’m very curious, maybe I’ll report back another time on how it pans out. But I’m confident that the method that I’ve advised here should at least bring an end to the endless looping and the search for consensus, and allow the company to make a decision, which is going to be a heck of a lot better than waiting for these folks who are on opposite sides, who really understand each other, who have drawn different conclusions ever to come to agreement. There’s going to be some very warm places that become very cold before that happens.

Jeffrey: One thing you did say there is that it’s an end to transparency and curiosity. I would say you’re not giving yourself quite enough credit, because you are saying part of it here is, “look, I think I’ve heard your reasoning and I’ve tested it with you, and you agreed I understand. Well, if there’s other things I’m missing, I’m still open to hearing them.”

Squirrel: Very good point. Yes, absolutely. “I’m not going to continue to pursue understanding your point of view unless you tell me something different.” That’s what you’re drawing an end to.

Jeffrey: Exactly. Just because we disagree doesn’t mean we’re going to have another meeting.

Squirrel: Yes! I really like that.

Jeffrey: If there’s nothing new, there’s no reason to have further meetings. That’s really for me the time to draw the line.

Squirrel: There we go. Okay. That’s going to be the pull quote for the episode. Thanks, Jeffrey.

Jeffrey: Thanks, Squirrel.