- Smart people have diverse opinions.
- Small groups of smart people meet and fight
- Everybody speaks up. Frankly.
- Learning to argue, discuss and fight takes time
- One thing: Arguing makes better decisions
In this chapter let’s get more practical about doing meetings better and discuss how to reach better decisions by arguing and fighting much more than you might be comfortable with.
Smart people have diverse opinions.
As I explained in the intro to this book, when I hired my first engineer, the key was to find a much better programmer than me. Later as my team was growing I was always aiming at hiring someone better for each position. However, the main problem with hiring better people is that these folks will have opinions which will be different than yours. But that’s good.
Small groups of smart people meet and fight
In Ken Segall’s book about Steve Jobs1 he repeated several times that the late CEO and co-founder of Apple, contrary to popular belief, wasn’t making decisions himself. He relied on “small groups of smart people”. People he trusted and people that were not afraid to stand their ground and defend their opinions.
When Ed Cutmull2 was describing how they were running Pixar, the famous animation studio, responsible for “Toy Story” or “Nemo”, he mentioned “Braintrust”. It was as a gathering of people who’d be reviewing all the film projects at Pixar on a regular basis. They’d preview a film and later give their frank, unfiltered opinions on the movie. There was no hierarchy, everyone in the group had equal say. Something like the “Knights of the Round Table” in the legend of King Arthur3.
Members of such group must represent different points of view, come from different backgrounds but share the same set of values. They need to feel comfortable around each other and secure about their position in the company.
We copied this concept in our team and I must say it works brilliantly. We use this at our “Directors” round table, where we have:
- Tom, CTO
- Iwona, VP Support
- Rafal, VP Product
- Radek, VP Engineering
- Waldemar, VP of Finance
- and me, the CEO and founder
Even though I own the company, I don’t make big decisions myself. We discuss them together and if anyone of us wants to propose something, they need to sell this idea to the whole group. These people above are the “Braintrust” of our company.
This also works great in our “Design Braintrust”, people who take active part in our Design meeting - they decide which features are implemented (and how) in Nozbe and Nozbe Teams. These people are:
- Hubert, Lead Designer
- Iwona, VP of Support
- Rafal, VP of Product
- Radek, VP of Engineering
- Leon, Android developer
- and me, the CEO and founder
Again, six people and that’s it. Diverse group, representing the points of view of different parts of the company, like customer support, engineering, product, design and strategy.
Everybody speaks up. Frankly.
Members of these groups know that they cannot be fired for speaking up their mind. Actually, because we have our “Directors” group, as the CEO of the company I cannot fire anyone on a whim. If I believe someone is no longer a fit for the company, I need to state my case in front of “Braintrust of Directors” and I need their approval.
The same applies to features or designs going into our products. While our engineering team has lots of authority over fixing bugs and applying their own criteria when it comes to small improvements and enhancements, no major feature of Nozbe Personal or Nozbe Teams can happen, unless it goes through our “Design Braintrust”. You have to follow the process outlined in the last chapter of the book - prepare an agenda item, write it up and later let the people discuss it on our weekly Design meeting.
Of course, building a rapport like this takes time. Most of our meeting members have known each other for years, they have a strong position in the company and are just not afraid to speak their mind.
Additionally, we apply some of these techniques to make sure we can reach better decisions:
Trick 1. Fall in love with the problem, not the solution
When proposing an idea we try to focus on the problem, not the solution. There’s an old management phrase, attributed to General Electric CEO, late Jack Welch: “Don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions”. To be honest, I believe this to be a terrible business advice. We should always start with a problem because there might be lost of ways to find a solution to it. So remember this:
Fall in love with the problem. Define the problem clearly and later investigate potential solutions.
This is what we do. Especially when we design features for Nozbe as we’ve got hundreds of thousand users from all over the world and we get many requests daily. People very often just tell us: “please add this feature” but when we hear that, we ask: “please explain to us which problem this feature will solve for you - please give us a real-life example” and then we get to the bottom of it. We want to find solutions to most common user problems. Not just add countless features to our products and confuse the rest of our users in the process.
To help us find solutions to problems, we follow a “Shape up” method published by Ryan Singer of Basecamp.4
Trick 2. Have strong opinions weakly held.
When someone analyzed a problem, investigated it and written up a proposal for a solution, they might feel very strong about all this. After all, they poured their heart into it and they believe that they’ve got it now.
That’s the moment to apply a “strong opinion, weakly held” framework5.
It basically means, that you’ve studied a problem and based on your intuition you chose a solution and now you feel strongly about it, until you’ve proven wrong by the rest of the team.
What’s more, you, as the author of a solution should actively encourage people to challenge your thinking. You should always remember to take your ego out of the equation by letting go of the notion that what you prepared was “your” solution. It’s “a solution” now and it’s only good, if smart people around you agree.
Countless times I’ve come to our weekly Design meeting convinced of one thing, just to be proven completely wrong and arguing in favor of a complete opposite way in the end. Sometimes it hurts seeing your idea die, but usually it’s really gratifying to be able to discover a new and better solution in the process.
Trick 3. Disagree and commit.
I’ve heard it years ago attributed to Jeff Bezos of Amazon, but turns out this concept is much older than that.6
If it wasn’t for this concept, we would rarely get anything done. The problem is that even if you have your “Braintrust” groups set up and have great discussions within them, these are just people with different opinions and quite often they will not be able to agree on a one solution.
But we have to move forward. What do we do then?
Whichever solution wins, we all support it. All of us. No exceptions. Even the ones who opposed it.
It’s not like “I support it, but it wasn’t my idea so if it fails I’m off the hook”. No way. Even if you disagreed, you commit to making this solution succeed.
It’s hard and it takes time for people to get it, but once a team has been through a few decisions like this, things start to make sense. Even the avid criticizers of the chosen solution will pour their hearts out to help it succeed.
Because there’s something bigger at stake - not the success of one particular solution but the success of the entire team.
Learning to argue, discuss and fight takes time
We’ve had very heated meetings over the years and we love those passionate disagreements. People arguing their case, trying to convince everyone around them, defending their position, changing their mind in the process, or playing devil’s advocate just to make sure we cover all aspects of the problem discussed.
It takes getting used to. It requires humility. People need to learn to keep ego in check. When addressing issues, we must remember to respect each other and not attack the other person. We are humans. We have feelings. And sometimes we will be hurt.
These situations challenge us, get us out of our comfort zones, put us on edge of our seats, frustrate us… but eventually make us love our work even more. We grow as people and as a team because we see points of view we’ve never considered before and ultimately we just make better decisions.
One thing: Arguing makes better decisions
In a team, we should avoid “groupthink” or just blindly agreeing with the leader. What we shouldn’t avoid is a healthy dose of disagreement or passionate arguing. This is something a team needs to get used to in order to make better decisions.
I’ve mentioned several books in this chapter but the one I’d recommend most for further reading is “Creativity Inc.” by Ed Cutmull.