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The Surprising Steps to the Dance of Disagreement

At a recent meeting, I observed as team members wrangled over what should have been a straightforward process discussion.

Not only did their disagreements about “the way things are supposed to be done” get heated and acrimonious, but all parties were adamant that their way was exactly what the group had previously agreed to. This is a normal bias: Whether we think the procedure should include steps 2, 9, and 47 or steps 2, 8, and 50, we all tend to believe that the “right way” is, of course, the way we do it.

How to deal with such an overt and public disagreement about what are actually only slight variances in details? You can cut through a lot of messiness with the right open-ended questions.

Breaking Down the Choreography

Start by taking the broad perspective and ask: What’s actually the purpose or goal? What are we trying to accomplish? If you don’t have agreement about the big outcome, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to reach agreement on the specifics and you’re probably setting up an argument in perpetuity.

Assuming you have consensus on the goal, then you can approach the issue of the best way to accomplish it. It’s often worthwhile to review the historical practice, which helps get everyone participating: What has our practice been?

Try mapping or diagramming each action or stage, and testing it against the big goal: Will this action help or hinder our ability to meet the goal? If there are competing or conflicting beliefs about the process, put each variant through this review.

Then consider whether each of the steps is optimal: Is this step the most effective, the most likely way to ensure the outcome we want? Is this step the most efficient, because it uses the fewest resources, and causes the least friction or disruption in the system?

Judging the Performance

Don’t forget the crucial user experience. Assess the impact of the individual steps on the customers, audience, or recipients of the process: As we’ve mapped it out here, will this procedure work for our constituents? You may have to sort the constituent population into sub-groups if they have differing needs or preferences — and test each one to see if the approach provides more or less value to them.

Finally, circle back to the dynamics and process of the group. You’ll want to find ways to deal with the acrimony and sense of hurt between the members and see if there’s a way to work more in concert with each other and not in attack mode — but that’s a different dance altogether.

Onward and upward,


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