Strong Opinions, Weakly Held

Most of us were raised to believe that compromise is noble. When faced with an otherwise intractable conflict, compromise invites people to make mutual sacrifices to maintain a good relationship. Compromise is arguably the bedrock of democratic societies and healthy marriages everywhere.

But compromise makes bad products.

We're not trying to get elected or choose which movie to watch. We’re building products that must stand the test of time. People need to understand them and value them implicitly. To meet that standard products must have a clarity of purpose and in my experience such a strong point of view is rarely achieved through a compromise of conflicting visions. Instead, it is most often the product of a single vision, sharpened through conflict with competing visions.

I can usually spot the product of a compromise a mile away. Teams who have conflicting goals will come to me, together, to present an idea that isn’t exciting to either of them, but is acceptable to both. It's very rare that I'm enthusiastic about the mediocrity achieved through compromise. Beyond my own teams I can see it in products I use every day. I see inoffensive but uninspired design choices and I recognize the tyranny of the averages that must have lead to it.

The better solution is to embrace disagreement and turn it into productive tension. Without letting it get personal, we must explore the underlying cause of conflict. Is it structural because the teams have different goals? Is there a fundamental difference in how you view the world? Are there tactical questions about sequencing and relative investment? Whatever the reason, understand it from all sides and escalate around that.

These are my favorite meetings. Conversations that expose fundamental tensions often uncover gaps or contradictions in strategy. Consequently, they improve not only a single decision but the entire constellation of decisions that follow. These conversations make products better. In the end everyone may not agree with the decision the leadership arrives at but they will know that their position has been heard and considered, and will hopefully be able to disagree and commit to the path forward.

Relationships are no less important in work environments than they are outside work, but the trade-offs we make to maintain relationships at work are different. Being uncompromising is not an invitation to be closed-minded or lean on authority, as those would be very short-lived solutions. Instead, this approach demands even more of us and how we treat others, so we can continue to productively disagree for the duration of a project.

After all this the product may still fail, but if it fails (and you executed well) at least you can learn from the failure because it disproves a point of view. If a mediocre product fails, you learn nothing. Working the averages may reduce your downside risk but it also cuts off the upside.