December 28, 2005 spout

PM Skill #2: Building Consensus

I know the phrase building consensus” is a touchy, feelie term, but it’s the best description of one of the most important skills a PM can have. As a PM, you’ve often got responsibility but no authority, which means you have to spend time convincing everyone that the work you need done is in their best interests to do. Getting a whole group of people pointed in the right direction is the consensus” part. The building” part is how you get there.

One way to build consensus is to hole up in your office for days on end, drafting a plan down to the task and sub-task level, emerging only when you’ve got everything just right, presenting it to the team in one, fell swoop. I’ll call this the engineering way” of building consensus, because it seems to be the first reflex of software engineers new to the PM world. Unfortunately, this way almost never works. The first problem with this technique is obvious: there ain’t no way your plan is going to survive contact with your team. They’ll question the highest level assumptions that affect the next level, which affect the next level and so on. Even if, eventually, your plan was 100% the right one, you can’t just jump to the end game w/o bringing your team along with you. The second, less obvious, problem with this technique is that, while you’re holed up in your office, the rest of the team will have splintered into factions, going in their own directions and building their own ideas of what the team should be doing which you now have to steer them away from.

My preferred technique for building consensus is what I’ll call the big mess.” The idea is you get the team (or a representative sample of the team) into a room and you ask the leading questions, e.g. What are we trying to accomplish? How do we get there? Who does what? How does that fit into the bigger picture? How do we involve folks outside the team? I call this technique the big mess,” because that’s how it starts and it only gets better through discussion and debate, led by the PM. One nice thing is that it’s usually a lot faster than holing yourself in an office, because you don’t have to make all of the planning decisions yourself (sometimes you don’t make *any* planning decisions), although you better be a fast hand at keeping track of the team consensus as it builds and playing it back periodically to make sure everyone’s staying in sync (Oliver Sharp turned me onto MindJets MindManager software for this task). One downside of this technique is that it keeps the decision makers on the team from doing anything else while you’re hashing through the mess, but the upside of this is that they’re not off pushing into a bunch of different directions.

As a tweak to the big mess” to make it a bit less messy, I like to have a small proposal to seed the process. It’s always easier to start a discussion with folks telling you what they don’t like about an existing set of ideas then to start with a blank sheet of paper. If this seed” comes from my mind alone, I stop myself from holing up in my office for days by giving myself only the hour before a mess meeting to prepare such a seed. I can mitigate some of the mess with a seed that I’m willing to dig up, but I actually make things harder if I show up with a fully formed tree that needs chopping down before the team is happy (see the engineering way” of building consensus above).

If I want to show up at a mess meeting with a seedling, I can spend more time nurturing my budding consensus with a bunch of pre-meeting 1:1 meetings with the decision makers on the team to get their take. This only works if I’m able to come up with something that takes the majority of folks’ concerns and ideas into account and if I circle back with folks on refinements to the things we discussed before in the pre-meeting meeting. In this way, things are still a mess, but it’s the PM that deals with a large part of it up front.

Ideally, if you have a pre-mess mess (my name for the collection of pre-mess-meeting meetings), you can show up at the mess meeting to merely tweak and ratify, but this is a rare thing indeed. If I were you, I’d be prepared for the mess and use pre-mess discussions as a way to inform how you lead the discussion.