Sunday 13 May 2012

Encouraging an Adversarial Environment

A few years back I was working on a project managing a development team. We’d recently had junior developer join the team, and one day he came over to me, looking a little troubled.

“Zeshan, do you think we don’t get on very well?”

“What makes you say that?” I replied

“Well, somebody mentioned that we’re always arguing”

What he thought of as arguing, I considered to be robust debate. He was bright guy, but inexperienced. He’d frequently come up with crazy ideas, many of which were unworkable. But the important thing was that he came up with ideas. We argue through them, and more often than not, once I’d explained why a particular solution wouldn't work, he’d accept it and move on. Similarly I got into the habit of using him as a sounding board for solutions to problems, and he’d often have good criticisms.

More recently at TrialReach, I joked to one of my colleagues that we have at least one big argument in the office a day. I think this is great, and extremely important in both startups like ours, and larger companies too. I get some funny looks when I tell people that we had a great argument at work today; presumably because the word argument tends to carry negative connotations. However it’s not that we have a great work environment despite our arguments, but rather because of them (amongst other things).

The key is that arguments always need to be about the substantive matter at hand, not the people arguing the position. Every now and again I find myself arguing one side with a colleague, only to find that halfway through we've swapped sides. Adversarial discussion should not be seen as a competition where one person wins over the other, but rather a tool to determine the best possible course of action. This demands a level of intellectual honesty and maturity on both sides, as well as the ability to separate the person from the argument.

Encouraging this kind of adversarial environment is particularly important at a startup because most startups are built on a shaky foundation of unproven hypotheses and unverified assumptions. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s vital that these hypotheses and assumptions are made explicit, and adversarial discussion is a great way to to drill down to these.

Note I’m not advocating argument simply for the sake of argument. It’s as important a skill to understand what needs discussion and what doesn’t. When it’s late on a Friday evening, and you find yourself arguing about the size of a font, then it makes sense to step back and realise it’s unlikely to make a huge difference in the grand scheme of things, and can always be fixed later.

Of course, what I'm suggesting here is nothing new. Socrates was doing this 2,500 years ago and most law and business schools use this approach to teach case studies.

Disagree with any of this? I’d love to hear your argument.

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