Have you ever felt like this?
You have a tried and tested approach for solving a knotty problem; however, getting organizational buy-in feels like pulling teeth. You’ve tried cajoling, begging, storming, bargaining and more to no avail. Nothing seems to work; you’re frustrated and thinking of quitting.
This post is precisely for you; I have been on both sides – frustrated as a change instigator and frustrating others as a skeptic. This article offers tips for change instigators and contains experiential lessons acquired from failed initiatives, advice from mentors and brainstorming with peers.
These techniques will help you successfully influence your organization without rubbing colleagues off wrongly or coming across as super argumentative. It also helps with listening better and challenging your assumptions.
The SOAR technique
- S: Subjective number (targets emotional responses)
- O: Objective number (targets logical responses)
- AR: Arrive at Resolution (targets stalemates / impasses)
Pick a subjective number
How much does this matter to you? I learnt this from Lara Hogan, wherein one of the top engineers would ask folks to choose a number on a scale of 1 to 10 about how much they felt strongly about something.
This subjective rating helps you put things in perspective. If a topic is less than 5, you are better off spending your energy on higher-rated initiatives. Let it go.
If both parties have ratings greater than 7, you now have clarity about interest levels and should explore ways to resolve the impasse. I typically recommend moving on to the Objective stage.
Pick an objective number
The problem with opinions is that everyone has them.
Things fall into two buckets:
- Incontrovertible truths, e.g. there are no square circles, 1 +1 = 2
- Opinions, e.g. spaces vs tabs, mono-repos vs multi-repos
Friction occurs when folks conflate opinions for incontrovertible truths – thus, they take a hard stance and refuse to budge. Not everything can be reduced to incontrovertible truths; however, research reduces doubts.
Here is a technique to move from subjective opinions towards objective informed knowledge.
- Opinions and anecdotes: everyone has them, but they do not count unless backed by independent research, objective statistics, or verifiable facts. If these exist, then they move from opinions to informed views.
- Informed Views: Data-driven decisions outrank opinions since you can validate the evidence. The risk lies in arriving at the wrong conclusions based on skewed data. “How to lie with statistics” is a great read to spot some of these tricks (watch out for averages and percentages especially).
- Fundamentals: A good grasp of the fundamentals dispels faulty derivations. No matter what the data says, 1 + 1 = 2. Do not construe the absence of evidence as evidence of absence; understanding basics enables you to draw the correct inference.
- Experience: In theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice, they are not. Theoretical fundamentals nearly always break on contact with the real world. A margin of error emerges to taint precise calculations. Experience caulks the chasm between theory and practice; hard-learned lessons reveal cautionary insights and boost success chances.
Using the Objectivity table
Rank each person’s objectively and then compare scores. Ideally, the party with the higher score has more knowledge authority and go ahead.
This technique also helps to break ties by guiding towards resolution. Suppose both parties have strong opinions, then they both know they can present a more robust argument by finding data, researching fundamentals, or seeking advice from an experienced engineer.
When Subjective and Objective Approaches to conflict resolution fail
The subjective and objective combo respectively target emotional and logical friction and work for most scenarios. However, they are not foolproof, certain contentious issues require external parties for resolution. These matters cannot be reduced to an objective, logical resolution (e.g. emotions); in those scenarios, the AR stage offers tips.
Arrive at a resolution
Contentious issues arise in every diverse organization; if unresolved, they crack the unified leadership facade and send dissension ripples through the entire organization. Fractious events, in turn, breed dissension, gossip and demotivation.
Resolution strategies have to be agreed upon by the entire organization to unify the org in the right direction. Members must conform to the disagree and commit model.
An excellent example of such a resolution strategy is the resolution ladder described below.
- Resolve internally: Both parties start by seeking a mutual resolution of the issue.
- Discover: Switch sides and argue the other’s point of view: This technique helps each participant see their opponent’s point of view. It is tricky to pull off; however, it works wonders. It leads to new insights and a better understanding of the problem.
- Assess: Only expend energy on trapdoor decisions: In cryptography, a trapdoor function is a one-way function: effortless to calculate in one way but extremely hard to reverse; a good example is opening up a remote office. If the affair is not a trapdoor, then agree to go ahead and re-evaluate after some time window.
- Derisk: For trapdoor decisions, are there quick experiments that can boost confidence? What de-risking opportunities exist? Seek collaborative brainstorming opportunities to explore the space and craft action items
- Involve external arbitrators: Break deadlocks by involving external arbitrators; all parties must accept the outcome of the arbitration. The technique involves both sides presenting their arguments and views to an objective panel of leaders, experts or experienced arbitrators. After that, the tie-breaker evaluates the landscape and makes the call.
Caution: Eschew Zero-Sum games!
Avoid I win, you lose situations!
Both sides belong to the same team and seek the best outcomes. Optimal outcomes sometimes require some parties to sacrifice for the greater good.
Disagree and Commit!
Folks should express their opinions during deliberation; however, everyone has to commit fully once a decision is made.
Sidebar – Compliance is not Commitment
Some folks do not disagree and commit; instead, they disagree and comply. They grumble, mumble and bicker at every opportunity.
Do not tolerate malicious compliance
Stem this behaviour by giving clear feedback. Whatever is decided at the last step must be committed to by all parties. There can be no chance for passive aggressiveness – everyone’s involved in the team.
My first SOAR attempt failed because I did a poor job of explaining the technique. Further trials have successfully defused tense debates by removing emotional subjectivity and concentrating discussions on the optimal outcome.
Fruitful discussions require both parties to listen and hear each other out. Be ready to change your views after learning new perspectives. Use the objectivity scale to expose your biases and identify actions to strengthen your case (research, expert involvement etc.).
Now, go SOAR; it works.