Consensus Kills

How a culture of consensus kills innovation


If you work in software, especially as a front end developer, you understand technology fatigue. For those of you who may be unfamiliar, technology fatigue is where you are fatigued by the pace at which technology progresses and/or the rate at which newer, more appropriate technology becomes available thus making your original choice in technology obsolete. It can be exhausting! Because we live in an information age, publishing new information for anyone in the world to see is as easy as clicking a button. As a result, technology fatigue has become a kind of occupational hazard for developers. Hazard or not, technology fatigue can burn you out if you aren't careful. The risk is compounded when you add additional factors that are frequently encountered daily.

As a front end engineer there are millions of frameworks available to choose from. Ok that was hyperbole, but seriously, there are dozens if not hundreds of frameworks to choose from each with their own merits and faults. The fact that there are so many choices presents both an opportunity and a problem. The opportunity is that there are a lot of different ways to solve problems, GREAT! The problem is that there are so many ways it's often unclear which is the "best" way, BOO! One mark of a good engineer is that they look for efficient solutions. Good engineers want to discover the most appropriate way to solve a problem. Therein lies a new problem: because engineers are constantly trying to figure out the "best" way to do... well everything, and because they are inclined wired to find efficient solutions, the effect is less than ideal: Sometimes engineers get stuck trying to solve more superficial issues than they should. Sometimes the pursuit of perfection becomes the enemy of good. Engineers in this frame of mind forget that there are external factors at play that should help guide their decisions and priorities... To add salt to the wound, it's not always clear where the line is between prudent pursuit of a great solution and a foolish use of one's time. Proper discernment of where you land often requires temporarily setting aside preconceived notions, personal opinions, or other information that prevents unbiased analysis and taking an objective look at both historical progressions of similar situations, your own anecdotal experience, or other non-biased information which can help answer the deceptively simple question, "is what I am doing worthwhile?".

Now all of this is fine and good but where does consensus come into it? So far I've only outlined some underlying catalysts that exasperate the problem I'm trying to frame: technology fatigue, analysis paralysis and wasted time aren't the bigger problem. Individually these things do not cause the more impactful, demoralizing outcome I eluded to in the title but they play a role in fuelings it's progression.

You see technology fatigue alone is a surmountable obstacle. Analysis paralysis can be overcome. Decisions can and are made daily without foreknowledge of their ramifications. That's life. The problem is that when you start adding people things start to get more and more complicated... Here's the point: As an individual it's tough to pick a great solution to a given problem. Throw a wrench in that equation, like too much choice, and it's even more difficult for that individual.

Now imagine getting into a group of other individuals -also struggling with decisions- and ask them to come to an agreement on the way forward.

...

I'll pause while you consider (or reminisce) about how awful that is...Go get a latte while you percolate on that. Or, if you can't, look at a nice picture of one :)

MMM, no conflict in a latte :)

MMM, a delicious no-conflict-latte :)

Alrighty! Did you catch it? Is it clear how coming to an agreement is exasperated when you add more people? In fact, it is arguable that the difficulty is multiplied by (at least) a factor of the number of people making the decision. So what? I'll concede that things that are difficult are not impossible. So how does a difficult situation turn into one where creativity is killed?

Coming to a decision requires consensus. Consensus is often reached through concession. It's these seemingly benign concessions where things start to fall apart because the reality is concessions aren't generally as benign as they seem. Often concessions undermine the integrity of the original concept from whence they stem.

The unfortunate reality is that the more people involved, the greater the number of concessions needed to reach consensus. There is a point where there is nothing worthwhile left of the original ideas brought to the discussion. Instead they have been replaced with something much weaker.

Let me attempt to put it more plainly: Imagine that A and B represent ideas. If I want A and you want B, concession may mutate A and B into C. C isn't what I want and it isn't what you want either. Neither you or I are happy and neither A or B is realized to it's highest potential. We are forced to concede on a lesser of both A and B, this new concept C. Had A or B been used without alteration, it's arguable that the creative effort that spawned the respective winner into existence was a success. It won't always be A and it won't always be B, but by choosing one, the purity of that idea remains intact. A or B can be seen through to its full extent and more accurately measured for success. On the other hand, if the requirement is that we use C, our ability to innovate and exercise creativity was effectively useless, or at least not as useful as in the first scenario. C can be executed but it is difficult to tell which part of C lead to C's success or failure. Was it the A part or the B part or the coupling of those in concert? It's very difficult to know. However, it's easy to know our original well-thought-through, well researched ideas are not there or certainly not as strong. They've been replaced with something not as thoroughly interrogated. It's unfortunate at best and demotivating at worst. The bottom line is this: If consensus is the continual theme in decision making at your organization, your creativity is effectively being killed.

Now that the cat is out of the bag, some reflections:

It is sometimes surprising to people that development is actually a highly creative endeavor. Perhaps it is strange to you to read that, but understand that when we try to make computers do things that humans comprehend easily, it's often quite tricky and requires a lot of creativity. Computers are generally very "stupid" and thus even seemingly simple ideas are complex to code. However, that is a topic for another time! If we understand that a culture of consensus kills creativity what can be done about that? I think the most important first step we can do is understand the cause and effect of requiring consensus. Clearly understand the ramifications of that decision. Appreciate how it can be demoralizing to people involved. Be aware that the result of consensus is often a lesser product/idea/decision. Empathize with others. After you've accomplished that and these concepts are internalized I believe that the groundwork is laid for a more constructive future.

Sometimes life is going to require consensus and sometimes that consensus is going to require concession. I don't think that is inherently bad. I do think that if stifling innovation becomes the status quo you've got a big problem. As long as it is understood that the result of a culture of consensus is one of mediocrity, the natural response of any organization concerned with it's longevity would be one of action!

First: Kill the thing that kills innovation!! Innovation is the lifeblood of your company. Simply put, a company cannot survive in this market unless it remains innovative. It is critical that anything influencing an individual, team or organization negativity be ruthlessly cut. In our example that is a culture that is needlessly stifling innovation for unjustified reasons. Don't make a culture of consensus the basis for making decisions. Make sure you leave room for creativity and purity of concepts. Take drastic action if need be but don't settle for anything less. Your organization's livelihood may depend on it.

Second: Know when the best path forward is consensus. We've just ruthlessly cut a culture of consensus above but sometimes there will be appropriate applications of consensus. Occasionally consensus will spur on something greater than the original idea. BE VARY WARY that you don't let this unicorn of potential steer your organization down a path they regret. Unless you have a team of individuals who really complement each other well, this is the exception to the rule. Generally there will be those on the team who have strong, if not opposing ideas about how things should be done. Make sure you leave room to satisfy both sides. It won't be for the same things but allowing people to exercise freedom is important to maintaining their happiness.

Third: Keep on innovating. Don't let the occasional death of one of your ideas put you in a rut. It happens. Not everything we produce is a golden goose. Move on and try again. As long as the first two points are in place the groundwork should be laid for the accommodation of one of your ideas in the future. What's more, listen and learn. Perhaps your idea was good, but there was another idea that was genuinely better. Analyze what was different about it and see if you can understand why it beat your idea out. Apply that learning to your next idea.

Fourth: Be vocal for change. If you're reading this and wishing that you could implement the prior three points in your organization but there isn't a practical way to do it RIGHT NOW, Be as vocal as you can be. Identify the culture of consensus in your company and articulate the dangers of it. The reality of business is that there are forces constantly trying to bring efficiencies into every area of the company. This is because efficiencies eventually translate into a bottom line. Unfortunately the bringing in of efficiencies isn't always fully understood. There are ramifications of those efficiencies. RESIST THE IDEA THAT EFFICIENCY IS EVERYTHING. EVENTUALLY THAT WILL KILL INNOVATION. Nothing is free in life, not even gains in efficiency. There is a cost and that cost is generally innovation.

We've just learned why a culture of consensus is dangerous and some things we can do about it. Hopefully this leaves you with some things to consider the next time you need to make a decision as a group. Here are some questions you may find helpful to ask yourself: When group decisions are made in your company are they always done through the vehicle of consensus or are there decisions made where individual ideas are allowed to come to fruition? Do you think your company does a good job of allowing creative freedom? Is your discipline struggling with morale? Could a problem with morale be symptomatic of the fact that people aren't being given the creative freedom they need or that they don't feel like they are being heard? If the answers to any of the questions above aren't what you believe they should be, initiate change. You have the power to influence things in a positive fashion. If nothing else educate others. Having knowledge about a culture of consensus will help people to understand the problem so they can make better decisions in the future. Don't stand by and let a culture of consensus kill your creativity or the overall innovation of your co-workers/teammates/friends. If left unchecked it can lead to an unfulfilling work life and can even cause people to quit. Help to fix this easy-to-solve problem before it becomes a big issue.

Thanks for reading and good luck initiating positive change!