This article was first published on LinkedIn October 24, 2016.
Every now and then I find myself working to resolve differences of opinions – or what may seem like a difference of opinion but could be just as much based on misunderstandings or excess focus on technical details rather than business needs and capabilities. I find this type of conflict negotiation to be both an important and very interesting part of my job. Therefore; here is a few thoughts on how I justify mediation to be a core competency area for Enterprise Architects - and indeed some tips on how to go about facilitating such discussions.
As end users, we typically have our preferences and persuasions, like claiming that Android is superior to iOS or vice versa. In my post about difficult decisions, I made the point that many such technology choices are like children picking ice cream flavours. Strong subjective opinions, a lot of attention, but not really any significant difference in outcome. Selecting between Android and iOS – or many similar matters of technology preference – is exactly that kind of difficult decision. It does not really make a difference, so we can just pick one. Unless there actually happens to be a difference – this one time – in the particular use case at hand – or given some local special conditions. In the example of picking your Ice cream flavour, the parent will typically contribute with some quality assurance criteria – like the child’s usual preferences, their budget, or dietary restrictions – helping to narrow the selection down to a manageable set of more or less equal alternatives. I have previously claimed that Enterprise Architects need to be skilled in simplifying complex structures. The purpose is to provide decision makers with necessary and sufficient information for their understanding. In this sense being an Enterprise Architect is much like being a parent or any other counsellor providing guidance and decision support.
So, what does this have to do with differences of opinion? Well - in order to resolve personal (or professional) disagreements, it is necessary to figure out to what extent the alternatives argued for actually differ from one another in ways that are significant - for their purpose - in the given context. Have the differentiator(s) been identified as valid arguments for the selection? The key words being valid arguments. If not, it is back to picking ice cream flavours and we can just flip a coin. Typically, a dispute is either based on differences in subjective perception, or it is based on mismatch in qualitative criteria. Do you use a knife or a pair of scissors for chopping things? Is NAS or SAN the best technology for storage? Should the business implement MS Office Enterprise Edition or go for Office365, or maybe Google Apps or some other open source option? Well, it depends… The most valid answer to any such question will be: “It depends…”. Because it does. Which is better depends on exactly what you want to use it for, but also – to some extent – your personal preferences.
The exercise of settling such (often subjective or perceived) disputes is a special case of the generic simplification often facilitated by Enterprise Architects. The task is to identify the valid arguments in such a discussion and to provide good representations that distinguish the valid arguments from the less relevant ones or from the subjective opinions. My recommendation is to do this exercise top down. Rather than listing all possible arguments and filtering them by validity and relevance, you should lift the discussion to a higher level and identify the obvious common denominators upon which all would agree. What are the primary use cases that should be supported? In the case of selecting workplace applications, it might be the ability to produce, read and edit MS Office compatible documents. You may argue that requirements at an astronaut level will not work as differentiators and bring us no closer to a conclusion, but that is exactly the point. All parties will be able to agree because their preferred choice is not threatened – yet.
Having established this common ground, you will be well positioned to handle this as a collaborative process. From there, a logical deduction – with gradually more fine-grained requirements – will bring the parties on a joint journey down to the level of detail necessary to establish which alternatives are fit for purpose. Should the documents be available offline? Are there security constraints preventing the use of public cloud? What about budget restrictions? In this process, personal preferences or irrelevant arguments have no logical room. We are left with a set of comparably equivalent alternatives, which brings us back to picking ice cream flavours. So, which one do we pick?
“Well. Everyone knows that chocolate is better, right! ...although maybe not as a side with apple pie? I guess – It depends…!”