Fostering productive debate in your open organization

3 essential skills for fostering productive debate in your IT team

Passionate, productive debate is a hallmark of open communities and organizations. Here's how to bring it into your IT team.

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Passionate debate fuels many open source communities and open organizations. Open and productive debate helps us refine and improve our ideas—and it ensures that everyone understands why a particular solution or idea is chosen.

Yet this kind of debate seems to be the exception rather than the rule among IT organizations. And that's a shame, because open and candid conversations lead to better and more innovative solutions.

So let's take a look at three ways that you can foster productive debate within your IT team.

1. Lead by example

When you share an idea or a proposal, invite others' feedback. Ask them questions that invite productive dissent, and open your own mind to different views.

Examples of helpful questions include:

  • If this idea didn't work out, what would be the most likely reason?
  • If you were going to make one change to this idea, what would it be, and why?
  • What challenges do you think we might run into, if we went this route?
  • What are some things I'm not thinking about, but should be?

2. Resist the urge to immediately defend ideas

If your organization's culture isn't known for its tolerance of conflict, you will need to work hard to create a safe space for disagreement.

When someone is brave enough to criticize an idea, respond with curiosity and a desire to fully understand their perspective, rather than jumping to defend your own.

A good technique is to repeat their concerns using your own words, and then ask whether you've understood them correctly. After you reach clarity on their perspective, respond respectfully to any points of disagreement.

Here again, you want to encourage continued dialog with a good follow-up prompt, such as: "So that's how I see it. But what are your thoughts?"

You might also need to mediate between more vocal and quiet team members. A good technique is to encourage the more vocal team member to express their ideas first, and to jot down a summary of their key points. Read that back to them, and ask for confirmation that you've captured it correctly.

Then turn to a quiet team member and say, "Ok, now I'd like to hear your thoughts. Which parts of that do you agree with, and where do you see things differently?"

When the more vocal team member interrupts, keep your focus on the quiet team member and say firmly, "Hold on, I want to hear the rest of what _____ has to say first. Please, continue."

3. Call people up, not out

In almost any passionate conversation—particularly in organizations where people are inexperienced with productive conflict—at some point, one person will step out of line and start to make things feel personal.

There's often a moment where things start to turn ugly, and you will be tempted to respond by "calling them out" on their poor behavior.

The key to returning the debate to a productive place is to respond as soon as you see this happening—and not to call them out, but to instead call them up.

Your goal is to model good debate and respond in a way that compels everyone to elevate their behavior, rather than escalate it. Typically, this means ignoring attempts to provoke an angry response. Instead, respond in the way that reminds everyone that you are all working together toward a shared purpose. Demonstrate by your response that you believe everyone in the conversation is a reasonable, rational, decent person.

Ultimately, you want to help your team make the connection between these productive debates and the better outcomes they drive.

Focus on the essence of what they've said—even if you have to dig and guess a little to figure out what that is—and be unfailingly polite and reasonable as you invite productive dialog.

You might say something like: "So, what I think I'm hearing is that you're really worried about this, and you're frustrated because it seems like nobody's listening. Or maybe you're concerned that we're missing the significance of it. Is that about right?"

Or perhaps: "It sounds like you've given this a lot of thought, and you're frustrated that we're asking what seem like obvious questions. Would you be willing to start at the beginning and walk us through the basics, so we all feel confident that we're understanding your proposal? We could hold our questions until the end, if that would help."

If the person is very upset, anticipate that it will take a few minutes of patient attempts to de-escalate before they can respond in a helpful way. In most cases, they will come around, and ultimately your team's trust and respect for each other will grow as a result.

Ultimately, you want to help your team make the connection between these productive debates and the better outcomes they drive. In your project retrospectives and your team meetings, point out how everyone's willingness to engage in uncomfortable conversations helped you deliver a great solution, and thank them for their contribution to that.

This article is part of The Open Organization Guide to IT culture change.

About the author

Rebecca Fernandez - Rebecca Fernandez is a Principal Program Manager at Red Hat, leading projects to help the company scale its open culture. She's an Open Organization Ambassador, contributed to The Open Organization book, and maintains the Open Decision Framework. She is interested in the intersection of open source principles and practices, and how they can transform organizations for the better.