Recently, I was amazed at what I could contribute to a technical meeting without any technical expertise on the subject matter discussed. In this particular meeting, there were two sides participating: On the one side, there was a team - let us call them Blue Team - who was starting to use a certain technology to solve a certain problem. On the other side, there was an engineer from a different team, let’s call him Gunnar, who wanted to talk them out of it. There was I, the manager of the Blue Team. I was in a neutral position. Why neutral? I will come to that in a second.
By the way, when I say “on the one side”, I literally mean it: When I entered the room, all of the Blue Team were sitting on one side of the table, and poor Gunnar on the other side. So I sat down on Gunnar’s side, with an empty chair between him and me.
The problem (or what might as well have been the problem)
The actual problem and the technologies do not matter much, so I will use some far-fetched analogies from the kingdom of fantasy. Let’s say that the Blue Team needed to defend a town against attacking Plutonium Dragons, and they set out to build a giant laser gun to fend the beasts off. Laser guns are very popular these days, and many kinds of problems are solved using laser guns. But then Gunnar came along, and warned them that a laser gun would not do enough damage to a dragon’s thick skin. They should use something more traditional, like a rocket launcher.
Would you know which weapon to choose? Well, I didn’t. I knew that those dragons existed, but I did not know how they behaved under attack, where their weak spots were, or what the best tactics were to defeat them. I also knew very little about laser guns and very little about rocket launchers. In short, I had virtually nothing to contribute technically to this discussion, even if I was formally managing this team (1). I mainly sat there and listened. This is why I say I was neutral.
So Gunnar delivered a passionate explanation on why he thinks the Blue Team should reconsider their approach. He was worried they would get into trouble, and, since it was their first Plutonium Dragon Defense project, would make many mistakes without somebody advising them. When problems arise, they might not even know what exactly went wrong, because, even if laser guns are clean and shiny, they behave less deterministically than you might think - a little known fact. Furthermore, Gunnar offered his help and was certain that, together, they could set up a bare-bones rocket launcher in a day or so, because he had done it many times before.
Like I said, I barely spoke during these explanations. I only made the remark to Gunnar that I had actually seen some engineers use laser guns for the purpose that Team Blue intended. He knew the engineers I was referring to, and pointed out that they were top-notch laser gun experts, and knew how to work around their limitations.
How was Gunnar’s passionate speech received by the Blue Team? At first, there were some questions and requests for clarification. They had read a lot of tutorials and documentation on the Internet, stating that laser guns could be used to defeat even large enemies. However, Gunnar could, every time, demonstrate that their case with the Plutonium Dragons was different. In the end, the team could see that Gunnar clearly knew what he was talking about, and that he was probably right.
Of course, there was some hesitation. The Blue Team had invested several weeks of work into research on laser guns, and into their design and construction. Especially Manolo, an engineer on the team, was very fond of the idea of using them. I was aware of that, and I could see in his face that he was struggling. From a rational perspective, the team was sold on Gunnar’s ideas. He had managed to convince them that their current approach would get them into severe problems. However, from an emotional perspective, they could still use a little nudge.
I cannot know for sure, but I assume they were thinking things like: “Five weeks of work, and now we are supposed to start over? All this work for nothing? That looks like a huge failure. How will we look? What will our manager think of us?”
So I did something to take that fear away: I thanked everyone. Of course, I thanked Gunnar for raising the issue. He could just have remained silent, watched them rush to their doom, and chuckle along the way. But no, he stood up and put himself out there, against the emotional resistance that was to be expected. He risked being the bad guy (he actually used a stronger word than that), just to follow his conviction. For that, I thanked him, because that is exactly the attitude I want to see in people around me.
And I thanked the Blue Team, and especially Manolo, for being open to Gunnar’s warnings and suggestions, but also for the enthusiasm he has put into the laser gun research. When he objected that all of that was a waste of time, I reminded him that laser guns are not going away, so the time and effort he invested have in fact not been wasted, and the knowledge and skills he acquired will turn out to be valuable in the future - think of connecting the dots.
Finally, an agreement was made that Gunnar would help the Blue Team set up an initial defense solution involving rocket launchers. Gunnar and Manolo fist-bumped each other, and everybody was happy. I was almost moved to tears.
I was amazed one or two days later, when Gunnar thanked me for my attendance at the meeting. He said that my presence took pressure away from him, and made him feel less uncomfortable. To be honest, I do not know exactly what I did that made him feel this way. Was it the fact that I sat down on “his” side of the table? Was it the fact that I thanked the participants? Was it just the presence of an impartial person? I am usually a very calm person, maybe it was that?
Sometimes, the mere presence of an impartial person who is respected by both sides - call him a facilitator, or a mediator, or a moderator - can work wonders. This person must not be emotionally invested in the situation, while the other parties frequently are. The facilitator can set the tone, make sure the discussion stays focused and that all sides are heard, or - as in my case - help everybody feel good about the outcome, if they otherwise might have felt like they failed.
The fact that Gunnar thanked me for my attendance was somehow ironic, because, originally, I, as their manager, had been asked by the Blue Team to join the meeting. They were hoping that I would help them protect the time investment they had already put into laser guns. Well, I failed to do that, obviously, because it was the right thing to change course. I trust that they know that, too, because soon after, they and Gunnar worked out a solution that would eventually kill those Plutonium dragons, and they got along great along the way.
This post took me 3.5h of work. As usually, about 90% of the work happened on the train.
1. You might wonder why I was the manager of the team when I was so clueless about what they were working with. Well, that is one of the problems with fast-growing companies: Before you know it, you run into a shortage of managers, and the few managers who are there have to handle too many things, among which are some that they are not familiar with. I do not want to wash my hands clean here, though: I certainly made the error of allowing the Blue Team’s initiative towards laser guns without having a design review conducted. Since I did not have the expertise myself, I should have gotten it from somewhere else.