As technical professionals, we have systems to let us know when data is well structured, a test is finished, or when code compiles. We engineer mechanisms to notify us when a solution is found.
But for the human side of work, it’s different.
In our experience managing technical teams, everyone deals with meetings, long email chains, or endless Slack conversations differently. Inefficient communication tends to result in a huge loss of productivity.
Below are some common scenarios that technical teams face when attempting to solve complex problems or make group decisions:
Technical employees have a tendency to get bogged down in day-to-day maintenance and work, often at the expense of important but non-urgent decisions. Many teams lack a specific protocol to assure they make progress on decisions that require complex analysis.
Frequently, an unimportant topic that won’t affect the outcome of a decision can stoke intense debate and derail an entire conversation. These types of digressions waste time and upstage the real conversation that would determine a solution.
Individuals tend to have an intuitive knowledge of what they think is the best solution. When a team member proposes framing the problem a different way — using a different set of assumptions or priorities — and discussion starts, the transfer of that internal mental state may not be obvious to everyone.
Even if the team agrees on the “Pros and Cons”, they may disagree as to the importance of each one. Maybe the team agrees that there’s a risk but not how likely it is to occur. The more people and the more factors under consideration, the more difficult it is to grasp not only where everyone stands — but why.
New team members can be a blessing and a curse. When a new member is added, sometimes they see the state of affairs and propose changes based on their past experience. But they frequently lack knowledge regarding your team’s process to date. They’re missing the backstory. Often the documentation doesn’t exist or is impractical to read.
Certain team members frequently dominate the conversation while others tend to be silent. This happens in meetings but also through email or Slack. Often one outspoken member will strong-arm the conversation by writing long messages full of details that would take a long time to respond to, usually in disproportion to the person’s function. This sometimes happens at the expense of other team members who tend to have more measured and valuable input.
For both in-office and fully remote teams, it can be difficult — sometimes impossible — to grasp an aggregated view of the opinions of the group when trying to meet a complex set of criteria. Striking a compromise can’t happen if you’re not even sure if everyone agrees on an acceptable alternative for the team.
It can be costly to pull everyone away from their work to let them participate in large group deliberations that affect many people. So frequently a few relevant stakeholders will meet to discuss all the options. When they reach a solution and present it to the entire team, often people will add new information that hadn’t been taken into account. Holistic reevaluation must be done again and again as each team member is informed and adds a new missing piece of the puzzle.
Our brains have evolved to help keep us alive, not necessarily to help us assess probabilities and make logical, evidence-based decisions. The modern office is nothing like anything our ancestors ever encountered.
Availability Heuristic: You have a temporary shortage and suddenly you switch all priorities to performance issues.
Confirmation Bias: You disagree with your teammate and google: “teammate-opinion sucks”. Then you read one article that makes you feel justified in your actions.
Sunk Cost Fallacy: After putting in a week of work on a project, you learn there’s an open source project that does the same thing. Though it would only take an hour to install, you still chose to go ahead and finish the original project even when you know it’ll take you a few more days.
The more people feel like they are being sold to, the more likely they are to resist or ignore the proposed course of action. Repeatedly forcing top-down decisions on your team can stoke resentment and apathy among team members. Real buy-in involves at least some element of co-creation. Without discussion or debate, you will miss vital feedback and your team will not feel vested in the outcome.
Clear roles make for efficient teams, with improved accountability and collaboration. When roles are ill-defined, people spend more time negotiating responsibilities and less time doing the actual work. It’s also much easier for things to be overlooked or go unclaimed — stalling important decision making processes.
Sometimes teams make irrational or problematic decisions because their members value harmony and coherence over accurate analysis and critical evaluation. Other times, individuals can get implicit messages that disagreement is strongly discouraged, leading them to set aside their own thoughts and feelings to unquestioningly follow the word of the leader and/or other group members. Regardless, groupthink can close a valuable feedback loop and lead to decisions that miss the mark.
These issues were our day-to-day in product development at an enterprise B2B SaaS company as we grew from 5 to over 500 people.
Though you can mitigate some of these problems through good company policy and managerial care, there is no current set of best practices or mechanisms to help you. Your best bet is to stitch together generic tools, make up your own processes, and police your team into compliance. But the more complex your work is, the more amplified these problems seem to be.
We plan to tackle these problems individually in more depth in future blog posts and propose solutions. Stay tuned.
Ezequiel Vázquez & Agustín Fernández
Did we miss any points? Let us know in the comments below or email us at [email protected] or [email protected] — We’d love to hear what headaches your technical team has encountered when making complex decisions.
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