Paul Glen: The gifts and costs of working with 'them'

When two parties are in conflict, they don't have to agree in order to respect and learn from each other's perspective

Project postmortems, engaged with honesty and brutal dispassion, are among the most powerful tools for professional (and life) development. They offer a rare opportunity to claim the gifts of insight that lie dormant in experience.

So I'd like to share some useful postmortem reflections at the end of an exhilarating and exhausting two-year project of writing a book with a co-author who is decidedly not one of us geeks.

Writing a book is a grueling process, not unlike developing a technical system. It starts with vague and incomplete requirements, passes through stages of exciting creation and discouraging setbacks, and finishes with a nearly superhuman push in which you triage and fix bugs (inconsistencies in ideas and language) before deciding enough is enough, declare victory and ship it.

In this project, we turned our two very different perspectives to a series of issues related to technical leadership. The work provided a microcosm of technical projects that usually require geek/nongeek collaboration and a controlled laboratory in which to test the platitudes about the strengths of leveraging diverse perspectives.

My co-author proved herself a keen observer, skilled analyst and articulate writer of good will and drive (qualities I hope she would say I share).

And yet, we struggled. And we learned these lessons:

Rare insights emerge from contrasting perspectives. In our observations and, honestly, our complaints about each other, we discovered vastly different interpretations of the world and opinions about how it should be. Even small things were quite revealing. For example, we uncovered some surprising truths about IT project estimation when I resisted giving hard deadlines for chapters. We learned that what I consider prudent caution, she perceives as avoidance of responsibility.

Comfortable interaction isn't necessarily productive. Our best insights frequently emerged from prolonged periods of confusion and conflict. They were the hard-won fruits of sustained conversations that neither of us found particularly comfortable. We struggled to listen openly to ideas we found confusing or offensive, frequently jumping to conclusions about each other's ideas or even about each other as people. For example, we questioned each other's ethics as we struggled to reconcile our attitudes toward, and even our definitions of, lying.

Recognition interrupts contempt. Nothing is more destructive to collaboration than contempt. And unfortunately, early on, our differences triggered mutual annoyance that could have easily turned into contempt. But when we started recognizing patterns in each other's perspectives, we were less dismissive and able to listen to ideas more openly. We came to understand our differences, not as evidence of ignorance or irrationality, but as expressions of unarticulated and coherent worldviews, founded on different axioms. And slowly, we realized that we didn't have to agree in order to respect and learn from each other's perspective.

So when you find yourself struggling to work with your business partners, remember our experience and make your conflict constructive rather than destructive. The rewards of cross-cultural collaboration can indeed be great, but not if you make it too easy, avoiding the kind of productive, good-willed ferment that provides the conditions in which genuine innovation grows.

Paul Glen is the co-author of the forthcoming The Geek Leaders Handbook and a principal of Leading Geeks, an education and consulting firm devoted to clarifying the murky world of human emotion for people who gravitate toward concrete thinking. You can contact him at info@leadinggeeks.com.

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