Conflict is a lot like water -- it spills over; it flows downhill; and, if left unchecked, it erodes whatever it touches. And sometimes it's like red wine -- it stains.
We're an opinionated bunch at 37signals, the software company I co-founded. That is true whether we're dealing with the outside world (in our blog posts, conference talks, interviews, etc.) or with one another. And since we're a semivirtual company with people in 12 different cities, we don't have the benefit of body language to help inform the subtleties of discussion. Because we can't see one another, we can't serve up a smile or a "You know what I mean" glance to defuse a conflict in the making.
So we've learned a few things about managing conflict. Conflict, of course, can be a downer. But managed conflict is a good thing -- it's fertile ground for a great exchange of ideas. When people dig in and defend their positions, a deeper understanding of a problem is possible. As long as people are defending a genuine idea and not just their pride, much can be learned.
Making a case is one thing. Making a convincing case is something else entirely. Convincing yourself of something you sense is true isn't very hard, but convincing someone else is. It makes you think harder about what you believe and why you believe it. And sometimes that alone will help you see the other side -- and maybe even change your mind.
Of course, if you want to get stuff done, a decision eventually has to be made. Decisions are progress. But when decisions are important and complicated, the odds are that no matter how much you believe in your idea, someone else believes in his or hers just as strongly. Maybe you've convinced yourself, but the others aren't convinced. Or maybe they haven't convinced you. How do you break the stalemate and get to a decision?
First, it's worth taking a step back and considering if you're even disagreeing. Sometimes what looks like a disagreement is just an agreement cloaked in competing vocabularies.
I think of this as "faux conflict," and I see it happen a lot -- especially when people with different skills are involved. That's because programmers speak one language, designers another, managers yet another. Someone in marketing calls it this, while a customer calls it that. Basic misunderstandings cause a fair bit of conflict.
I remember when we were working on a new feature for Highrise, our contact-management tool. This particular feature was designed to keep track of conversations users have with their contacts. One designer called the logging of the conversation a "message." One programmer called it a "note." Another programmer called it a "recording." And I remember calling it a "post." We were all talking about the same thing, and we all fundamentally agreed about how it was supposed to work, yet we soon found ourselves arguing about it. Why? Because none of us were exactly sure what the others were talking about. If we had done a better job of defining our terms at the outset, there would have been a lot less argument, stress, and wasted time. Simple.
This is why we try to get real with things as quickly as possible. For us, real means something we can all look at -- a picture, a sketch, something visual. Until everyone's looking at the same thing, it can be hard to reach actual agreement. Five people may read the same paragraph, but they often interpret the words differently. But when you look at a picture, a mockup, people are more likely to reach agreement -- or valid disagreement. Whichever way they go, at least we know where they actually stand, not where we think they stand. Pointing at something real cuts through to the truth.
If you find you do have genuine disagreement, then you can move on to some techniques to help resolve the conflict. One tried-and-true method, of course, is brute force: The highest authority makes the call. That could be a founder, CEO, president, or manager. In some cases, this has to be done. But mostly I've found that it leads to lousy morale and bruised egos rather than genuine agreement. In fact, the person at the top doesn't always have the right idea. And the farther he or she is from the actual work being done, the less likely his or her idea will be the right one.
Nonetheless, almost all entrepreneurs would admit that it's tough not to play dictator. I certainly know the feeling. When it's your company, your vision, and your ultimate responsibility, it's easy to think you have to make all the calls, all the time. But if you really start behaving that way, you'll see the quality of work steadily decline. If your colleagues know that you're just going to come in and tear down whatever they've been working on, they're not going to give you their best work. Why would they? If it's never going to be good enough for you, then it doesn't matter how bad it is, either.
So here's how we turn conflict into something positive and get stuff done at 37signals.
We trade. This method is based on the highly nonscientific "I've got this one; you get the next one" model used by millions of people every day. You know how it goes: You grab lunch with a friend, and you pick up the tab. Next time, he gets it. You don't really keep track, because you know it'll all even out in the end. And even if it's not even in the end, it's even enough.
So sometimes, when we're battling over a detail in one of our products, someone will eventually cede the decision to someone else: "OK, we'll go with your idea this time. Next time, it's mine." It's not always that literal, but the intention is implied. It's simply not worth battling every last decision until one side is too beaten up to battle anymore. Sometimes, a friendly "You get this one; I get the next one" is all it takes to move on, egos intact.
A variation on this theme is to ask the question "Who really wants it more?" early in the process. It's pretty rare that two people (or groups of people) all share the same degree of passion about a particular problem. Someone almost always cares more. She has more invested or a stronger opinion or just needs to win this one more than the others. So sometimes, that's all that's required: Just ask. Find out who really cares more and then give it to her. One day you'll care more about something and you'll get it. I've found that it all tends to even out in the end.
Another great way to see who's really willing to stand behind an idea is to find out if he or she is willing to take responsibility for it should things go wrong.
Say we're battling over a new feature for our software. One faction is certain that the feature will cause problems for our customers, while the other insists that things will work out fine. In most cases, we'll let the optimists prevail, but with one key condition: They take responsibility for handling all the customer service and support issues that might arise.
So if it turns out that the customers are complaining or things go wrong in general, it's on their backs. They have to answer the e-mails and deal with the backlash. When someone is willing to shoulder that burden, there's a good chance he or she has the right idea.
Of course, you don't just give away decisions to people who aren't capable of making them. I'm not suggesting making crappy calls just to avoid long-term conflict. In all of this, I'm assuming that everyone is making valid points for the most part. If someone is uninformed or arguing for the sake of arguing, the worst thing you can do is hand it over.
At 37signals, we're all reasonable and competent people. I hope that's true of your company as well.
Jason Fried is co-founder of 37signals, a Chicago-based software firm, and co-author of the book Rework, which was published in March.