My current (mild) bugaboo at work: agreeing on plans. “Bugaboo” is really too strong a term, but it’s something that I’ve been probing a bit. Like a lot of my coworkers, I’m not a big fan of hierarchy (actually, I actively dislike hierarchy, though I won’t speak for others in that regard); also, like a lot of my coworkers, I’m introverted and reasonably confident in my own technical judgment. This means that, a lot of the time, I, like a lot of my coworkers, will see something that I think is a good idea, and go off and do it.

But I also have an opposing desire, one for following agreed upon procedures. I’m actually not sure where in my psyche this comes from—maybe the same part of me that wanted to be a good student and do well in contests? Tracing back through my post-academia history, though, it’s possible that it first came when I became fascinated by the rules of TDD and by the specifics of refactorings, and more broadly by XP’s prescriptiveness. It’s certainly explicit in the agile tradition more broadly in the notion of a retrospective, and lean puts it front and center.

The result is that my anti-hierarchical bent comes out in a desire for consensus as much as in a desire for autonomy. And consensus in a specific way: explicit consensus as a foundation for experimentation, so we can all get on the same page for something to do now, see how it works, and then accept/change/reject it.

At least that’s the theory; I haven’t yet been particularly successful at accomplishing that. Which is fine: right now, I’m at the stage where my brain is reminding me that, yes, this is somewhat important to me, but that I need to brush off / improve my consensus-building skills. (And my communication skills more broadly.) In the short term, it’s leading to somewhat odd interactions, where I see something that I interpret as a plan that we’ve agreed on, and then I see signs that we’re not acting as if we agree on the plan. Right now, I’m behaving in a not particularly productive way when I see that, instead acting a little grumpier than I’d like; now that I’m aware of my own behavior, though, hopefully I’ll be able to stop that and redirect it elsewhere.


The first step to that end is communicating where I’m coming from; this blog post is an effort to get that straight in my own head! In particular, I think I should be more explicit that I’m not pushing plans of record in to have my point of view win, and in fact I’m not wedded to always having a plan of record at all. So I’m happy for us to agree to follow a plan in some area, but I’m also happy for us to be explicit that we don’t yet have a plan of record in that area, or for us to agree that we had one but we’re modifying it, or that we’re following it in general but making an exception in this instance, or that we had one but are rejecting it. Much of the time, all of those are fine outcomes for me, I’d just like to know which one we think we’re doing in a given context!

Also, the other thing that I should make clear is that I’m not interested in plans as rules, I’m interested in plans as experiments. (I think Taiichi Ohno once said, when confronted with a standardized work document that was old enough that the paper started changing color, that any group who hadn’t changed their standardized work over the last thirty days was stealing from the company.)

With that understanding in place, the next question is: to the extent that I do want to poke at this issue, how to poke? And, in particular, how do I want to position myself in that effort? For example, one relevant role that I enjoy is acting the part of the fool: adopting an explicit pose of lack of power, noting that I’m listening to multiple people in positions of greater power and that I’m hearing them say different things on a topic, and naively wondering which one of them I should follow.

That role of fool works well to tease apart latent disagreements between others in more power; it doesn’t work so well to set up plans in areas where we don’t have pre-existing discussions, and probably doesn’t work as well when dealing with disagreements between people who are my peers. In fact, working with peers may, in an odd way, actually make building a consensus harder rather than easier: the existence of hierarchy gives planning discussions a place to start, and you can use hierarchy as a lever no matter which end you’re on. Maybe the real lesson there is that there’s no point in worrying about plans if you don’t have some sort of lever that you can push or pull; hierarchy is one such lever, but it’s not the only one, so for example the existence of an agreed-upon problem is another lever that you can work with.

And, stepping back: the general goal is to promote an experimental mindset. Having me pushing towards coming up with plans in areas that I care about is one tactic to that end; but if I can help other people push towards plans in areas that they happen to care about more than I do, then that will be even more effective. I’ve seen some interactions recently where somebody has identified a real problem and proposed a solution which hasn’t gotten traction; I should be more alert to those situations and see if I can help people in such situations drive the team towards some sort of consensus, by stepping back a bit from the details and focusing on what we agree on (the general problem space), what we don’t agree on (the details of a solution), and figuring out what’s going on with that disagreement and where to talk next.

Which is something that I thought about a fair amount when I was at Sun, and not so much since then. Probably time to revisit the relevant bits of the lean literature: in particular, I should take another look at the A3 report book. And I’m also tempted to use this as an excuse to revisit the Theory of Constraints thinking processes.

Though I’m not completely sure that the latter are directly relevant for this: I can’t remember how much they’re directed at groups coming to consensus versus individuals finding unexpected solutions to problems? Probably a bit of both; and to the extent that they’re focused on the latter, I should be able to get some personal benefit out of them right now even if they won’t suggest strategies for dealing with this specific issue.

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