Tension

A talk at Microsoft’s TechED

Tension between departments and roles in tech companies is normal. Different fields of practice have been taught to optimise for different outcomes. When they come together in business it ceases to be about the ideals of each and brings together all areas to strive for one leading goal. This convergence and need to execute brings tension. Good tension makes for efficiency, innovation and collaborative problem solving. Bad tension makes for delays, inability to execute and a rubbish working environment. This session will involve discussion about how to optimise for good tension.

I had the start of a very annoying conversation the other day. I was talking with my CTO and the direction of the conversation was making me incredibly frustrated. I suddenly said wait hold on, what is the actual topic of conversation we’re having here - what lens are we looking through? And we realised that he was looking through a ‘long-term tech vision for Wiki New Zealand’ lens, and I was looking through a ‘trying to nail down the next dev milestone to tell external parties’ lens. As soon as we realised and articulated that, we agreed both conversations were important, and that we’d start with the the long-term vision conversation first, which went awesomely and then moved to the specific delivery discussion. This was a really clear example to me of how tension between different fields of practice and their priorities can arise and can be extremely frustrating for everyone involved, but it also demonstrates how it can be managed and reduced pretty simply, just by asking the right question at the right time.

Tension is ‘the state or degree of being stretched’, and whilst connotations of the word ‘tension’ are often negative, it can be a good thing or a bad thing. Over the past decade I’ve worked in a few different tech companies and by having points of comparison, I’ve started to recognise how tension makes a huge difference to working environments and outcomes. There can be a lot of tension between departments, such as the dev and sales teams, and it can be really productive and useful, or it can be very frustrating and make for a rubbish working environment. And I’ve seen both. Being stretched and having to work together to solve problems and debate trade-offs is good, but completely breaking the ability to communicate and understand each other isn’t. When it’s not managed well, tension can often manifest through really explicit disrespect amongst a team and an inability to get everyone working together and executing well, but when tension is humming, you see products go out the door efficiently and in record time, and that they’re what customers want, and you see people throughout the team are able to discuss and negotiate trade-offs openly and really test and push the limits of how we think, and of what can be done together

Two things that lead to tension being really damaging, are discipline ideals and communication styles.

So a story to illustrate what I mean by discipline ideals.

Think of 6 countries, each with a different language, different culture, and different social understanding of what success means. Take 4 people from each of those countries, and put all 24 people into a building together. Everyone is sitting together in groups based on their country, the name of their group is after their country, and they have each been given different materials, different tools and different technology and communication processes - the ones that they used as they were growing up, and that are all really different from each others’.

Now nominate one extra person to go along and join them, it doesn’t matter which country they came from, and have them tell the groups what their definition of success is, and tell them, that they must all work together to achieve that, whilst also ensuring they achieve success as is defined by their own cultures, and that if any group fails, they all fail. Give them the deadline and ask them to get going.

Imagine how that would work, how much of a disaster it would be for the different groups to work together without any translation service, or ability to discuss what they think success is and how it relates to the others. Imagine how powerful it would be if you were able to take the really valuable experiences and points of difference from each group and combine them in a really cohesive and clear direction.

This is how I see the situation we deal with in our companies.

We generally spend years training in our area of expertise. Whether it’s formal training, informal training, the books we read, the friends we have, the communities we’re involved in. It shapes our language, the way we communicate, our expectations, and how we define success and what our discipline ideals are, and our beliefs about the optimal way to work and execute.

All of these things shape the lens that we usually look through. By lens I mean something that facilitates and influences perception, like if I said I want you to think about an issue such as technology in schools through the lens of a student versus through the lens of a parent. You’d be thinking about very different concerns and benefits, and priorities.

It’s fascinating to think that we spend most of our time before we hit the workforce honing a specific lens in one discipline, and then we get a job where we are hired to think using that lens and given KPIs based on that lens, and put together in an environment with a group of teams all armed with different lenses. And yet we are never really taught how to value, communicate or translate with the others.

It can be ridiculously annoying. Sometimes we have what are called T people, those that have some deep expertise but that span across departments, like a T, and they try to work between departments and translate, but in my experience that doesn’t often really help the core problem which is that many people just simply don’t value other roles, and don’t understand why they are important or crucial to success, and that’s huge right! And a fundamental problem with huge effects.

The other thing that I think makes tension really negative, is the different communication styles we use. It’s taken me years to really realise this and to understand how differently we think and communicate, and the impact of that. For me, the most stark contrast is between people that think to talk, and those that talk to think.

Oh my stars this has driven me nuts over the years. I definitely think to talk. I would much prefer to stay quiet as I’m thinking, and then say something when I’ve got clarity. But I’ve mistakenly always assumed that’s how everyone operates.

Because I don’t tend to say something until I’ve thought through the implications of it, I assume that when others talk they are giving me processed and thoughtful information, so I’ve always been a very active and engaged listener, and intensely listen to every word people say. So it totally bamboozles me when I am talking to someone who starts talking and just keeps going and going and ends up in a totally contradictory place from where they started. I find it really exhausting and confusing, and I feel super frustrated that they’re wasting my time and taking 7 minutes to explain something that could take 30 seconds, if they had spent 6 minutes thinking.

It was literally only a couple of years ago that I realised those people are talking so that they can think, and that it is how they get their best thinking done, and that realisation has removed a lot of the frustration I’ve always felt around that. I don’t understand it, and I still find it a bit strange, but I can accept it. I also know that others have found my silence a bit odd at times.

I see others experience similar frustration, a lot. And especially as people in our own departments often communicate similarly to us, the situation seems most apparent and dramatic between departments and when we’re engaging with others who have different styles it creates a lot of annoyance and negative tension. For those of us who don’t like to fill silences unless we have something specific to say, that can seem rude or disconcerting to others, and for those who need to verbally speak through their thinking process, that can seem rude or disconcerting to others. And there is no ‘right’ or ‘better’ way, and it makes things a whole lot easier when we know that, and can recognise which style others around us are using.

Getting good tension is really important for individuals and at a whole-company level, both for enjoying our time, doing satisfying work and having good relationships, and also for producing good results for the company. There are tools that can be used, but I think it’s really hard to solve. In the conversations I’ve had as I was exploring my thinking around this topic I’ve found lots of people who experience the negative effects of tension and don’t have any way of addressing and fixing it.

When I looked around at the commentary on the topic, I didn’t find anything that I liked. A lot of ideas for what could be done seemed to be work-around attempts or handling people with gloves, rather than actually understanding and addressing the core issue.

I think the core issue is that we typically don’t understand and value others’ roles as much as our own, that we think people are a bit dumb for not understanding and valuing ours, and that we aren’t really taught how to share our perspectives in a way that helps bridge that understanding. #### What I have learnt:

I’ve worked in a variety of different roles, and there are things I’ve learnt about others’ roles, that I was really surprised to learn, and they’ve reshaped my thinking and reactions:

1. Software is never finished, and that’s a GREAT thing: I’ve been around software development for the past decade, and I’ve always known it is never finished and that there are multiple ways to solve things, but it’s only really been in about the past six months that I’ve understood how valuable and great that is, and I find it really interesting it took me THAT long to understand that. The conversations I’ve had since that realisation have been really quite different and far more productive, and I’ve been able to really embrace the process and feed into it and off it, and stop freaking people out quite so much with things I say and assume.

2. Salespeople have some of the best product insights: In New Zealand, sales people often don’t have a very respected position - I say in New Zealand specifically because I have discovered that’s very different in the US and the art of sales seems far more valued, compared to here where often sales is seen as an undesirable and annoying role. But because they are dealing directly with the customer and actually SEE them working and hear their questions and understand the use case context more, they should often be in the rooms on product discussions because their insights are valuable and unique, not just lobbed something coming out the end of the pipeline. I know many NZ founders who really suffer from not engaging with sales people earlier in the process, who think it’s just a piece they can tack on after they’ve built their product, and then get a huge shock when they start engaging in the selling end.

3. Expensive executive dinners are often really important: This is a funny one. I remember when I was really new to working in a business and would see executives going out schmoozing people over from the US etc., spending hundreds of dollars on meals and trips to Waiheke, and I thought it was the biggest trickery ever and entirely not work! But over the years I have learnt how incredibly valuable those times are. Big deals aren’t done between strangers, they’re done between people who have spent enough time together to know, trust and respect each other. Now that I see the end-value of those times, I think the expensive dinners are cheap for what value they bring with new partnerships etc., and that they are most certainly high stake and require a set of skills and traits that are not easily taught.

4. Telling stories and good communication is really crucial: I have seen companies with a truly great product solving real problems for people, but totally unable to tell the story in a way that means people quickly grasp it and want to be part of the journey. And language is really important - when someone says ‘do you support X’, there’s a big difference in saying ‘No, but we will in three weeks’, and ‘Yes, it will be available in three weeks. The effect of the different styles is HUGE on a customer, as all they hear is the No or the Yes, and there’s a whole set of skills around that, that marketing and sales teams understand, and that other departments often this is just polished smooth talking trickery.

So these are some examples of things I have learnt, that now make me value others’ roles better. But they have taken YEARS to learn, and there’s been a lot of frustration and misunderstandings under the bridge during that time. #### Some final thoughts:

I think there are things we can do more proactively to try and get the tension humming well, but I really don’t think there are any magical answers, and I certainly don’t think handling others with gloves is the right answer - I think whatever is done has to be genuine and thoughtful, so I’ll share what some of my thoughts on that are

1. Identify the lens: This is what I demonstrated in my initial story of the conversation between my CTO and I - what I mean by this is starting conversations by framing them around what the conversation is really about. I don’t just mean the topic, because that’s usually pretty clear, I mean the type of conversation - is the conversation a thought-experiment fun thinking kind of brainstorm conversation, or is it one where one party needs to leave with a really concrete decision on something. They are very different types of conversations to have, both important.

2. Share the real problem, the one you’re aligned with: If we go and talk to each other describing exactly what we want someone to do, we are assuming we know better than them how to solve the problem. That may be right a bunch of the time, but that’s shutting off the option for when we aren’t right or when there is a better solution than we know of, or trade-offs we don’t realise. Don’t go to someone telling them what you want them to do, rather share the real problem and give the opportunity for people to find other solutions. For example, if you go and say ‘I need this feature implemented asap’ to someone in dev, it’s highly likely that’s not going to get as good a response as if you went and said ‘There’s a potential really large customer who I’m talking to, they really want to start using our product but they’re worried because they can’t do X yet - can we discuss any options for how we can make things work for them?’. When you actually share the real problem it can be really simple to solve, or, to figure out why it can’t be solved. When I was the Chief Strategy Officer for a software company there were some features I knew were important to potential customer that I wanted to have implemented ASAP, so I talked to the Chief Product Officer and he sent me the roadmap with dev priorities for the next few weeks to look at and said yip let’s talk. I looked at the list and as I went down it I realised there was absolutely nothing that could be bumped from it for the things I was talking about, so I could accept that and understand it without feeling the frustration of just not being able to get something done and feeling like I wasn’t being listened to other others just didn’t understand.

3. Understand what drives you and your discipline, but remember that no one actually cares as much about your stuff as you do: I realise this sounds a bit mean, but it’s pretty true. We might all think the parts we play are the most fascinating and fun, but that doesn’t mean they are. We need to accept that and learn how to communicate the important and the relevant pieces, and do it without thinking that those who are outside of the bubble are morons.

4. There’s a thought experiment I did the other day, so: imagine if the KPIs for a marketing team were based on the number of support requests filed each month and the time it took to solve each, imagine if KPIs for the dev team were based on the staff satisfaction ratings throughout the company, and imagine if the HR department was judged on the number of customers a company had. Whilst it’s not something I think would be very useful to implement, when I was considering the environment that that would create, it did spark some thoughts and realisation of how the structure of our organisations tends to keep reinforcing our belief that the roles we play are most valuable, because they’re what we get assessed on and focus on, and don’t tend to be formally connected to the priorities and success of other parts.

5. Remembering the wider purpose of what we’re doing can be helpful: Hopefully, you’re being valued for your expertise wherever you work. But remember that you operating perfectly in isolation is not going to make a business successful, there will be a overarching purpose that is pulling all the different strands of expertise together to deliver on something, and it’s likely impossible for there to be an overall win just by you winning. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that, because we’re so head-down and focused on our own projects and targets. But being able to tap the wider purpose that everyone is aligned with and driving for should be a way of getting on the same page somewhere, and being able to work backwards from there for specific discussions and trade-offs and understand why sometimes what you want, isn’t best.

6. Have a mechanism for sharing tension: Kind of seems obvious, but it’s really hard when you’re in the middle of an extremely frustrating conversation or situation to really step back and think, wait, what’s happening here? Perhaps it’s just a case of being conscious about when it happens and being brave to stop a conversation and reframe it or ask the question about what lens is being used, what the purpose is etc. Or perhaps if it’s a company-wide initiative there could be trigger words that can be used to suddenly make everyone acknowledge that there’s a frustrating disconnect happening and the convo should be stopped and clarified.

7. To help ease tension at a company level, it can be useful to get representatives from each department in the same room, especially when there needs to be a change in direction and strategy, and have each representative feeding into the process and discussing and agreeing trade-offs. Really talking to each other, using language that really simply describes concerns and ideals, rather than simply asserting solutions or having a strong hierarchical approach. Some companies do this pretty well, but there can be huge issues when one of the people is a bit of a dick, and is misrepresenting the team they are supposed to be feeding in from. Having even one of those can be really dangerous and make for a really dumb working environment, so it’s really important to have a mechanism that allows anyone to lob things directly into the discussion circle.

8. So one of the biggest things I think we can do, with lasting results, is to work towards knowing others’ roles and perspectives are valuable and necessary, even if we don’t really understand them and what they do and why on earth they choose to do it. I had a good convo with Vaughan Rowsell from Vend about this the other night, and we came up with the BEST IDEA, which is to make a trader card game based on this. The idea being to have cards for each type of role you have within a company, and the rules to have certain requirements before you can do certain actions etc. - for example if you don’t have a lawyer card in your hand people can steal your cards, you need enough schmooze points before you can do deals, and you have to hold your developer cards for a set period of time before being able to act on having a product. We thought it could be a really powerful way of getting people to simply see the value of each others’ roles and why they’re a necessary part of a business, and really critical to enabling what it is we want to do ourselves - feel free to borrow the idea!