Of Arguments and Agile
8 August 2017
“When my information changes, I alter my conclusions. What do you do, sir?”
— John Maynard Keynes
To me, this always seemed a very understandable quote. We come to a conclusion based on the evidence at hand. If that evidence changes, so might our opinion. This is the cornerstone of debating, a skill I consider incredibly important for any Agile team.
In the IT industry, however, we all too often fall into the trap of arguing. This happens at the very moment one party takes a vested interest in the outcome of a debate. Once an argument has begun, it is no longer about being informed; it becomes about “winning” and who is “right.” This dramatically increases the hostility in a room and will often force lower-ranking team members out of the conversation. In Agile — or any workplace for that matter — this is something we want to avoid. As Scrum professionals, we want to foster a culture in which everyone feels that they can speak, where the weight of someone’s opinions is not dependent on their rank, and where the goal of a debate is not to win but to better understand the topic at hand. And yet so many of us can recognize these negative symptoms in our environment. So, what can we do to help our teams embrace debate and reject arguments?
I believe the first, and sometimes easiest, step in creating an engaging debate is to get all parties speaking. Most people have an opinion, but so few get the chance to voice theirs. Look out for those trying to find a way into a conversation. Sometimes in teams with much to say, the quieter members can be brushed aside, left looking for an opening. Invite them in and give them the chance to be heard. The more you do this, the more likely your team will become conscious of this and look out for the signs themselves.
Next, we need those involved to understand that when we present an alternative viewpoint, we are not attacking them as individuals. We are merely testing the strength of an idea to ensure that the team has heard and understood all the options available to it. This could be done by including this concept as part of a team charter, which explicitly gives people within the team the chance to disagree with an idea without facing hostility, as it is understood that they do so not for self-gratification but for the mutual benefit of the team.
Alternatively, teams could try nominating a devil’s advocate or “tenth man” for different sessions. It is the role of this person to occasionally disagree with the team in order to stave off the blindness of “group think” and put their thoughts to the test. This can be a fun way of getting people used to the idea of both challenging and being challenged on their ideas, without the situation being hostile.
Ultimately, though, it’s up to you to foster this open culture, be an example of what you are trying to achieve, and be brave enough to challenge ideas. Help defuse hostile situations and remind people that, at the end of the day, we are all working toward a common goal.
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