Mathew Cropper

March 4, 2021

Reluctant consensus

Originally published: August 3, 2020

One of the most challenging things to deal with when building products is reluctant consensus. When it happens, it's often brushed aside and ignored, treated as a minor frustration that comes with the job. It's actually an incredibly powerful signal, and one that more PMs should be actively mindful of.

So, what is it?

  • The team agrees that it is right to do, or not, do something.
  • At the same time, the team is disheartened by a decision.
  • This often becomes a recurring talking point that doesn't lead to any change, because there's already agreement that the chosen path is the right one.

Keep in mind that disappointment is not the same as reluctance. We are probably all often disappointed with decisions, but we can agree with them. When we agree reluctantly, we're actually disagreeing for some reason, but choosing not to make a fuss about it.

This can take a terrible toll on a team. It festers. It eats people up. It causes frustration. In the most extreme cases, it can boil over and cause people to take sides, becoming the source of conflict in a team.

Reluctant consensus is a signal that something isn't quite right, but we don't always acknowledge it or articulate the reasons why.

What are some of the common drivers of decision making that could be in play here?

  • Having a clear strategy means saying no, even if something is an objectively great idea or opportunity.
  • A strategy that's not fully thought through means saying no to the wrong things.
  • Prioritising other problems or needs first, so this great idea never bubbles to the top.
  • The timing isn't right, for all kinds of reasons. Foundational technology doesn't exist yet, company strategy is pushing you in an opposing direction etc.
  • You lack the resources to actually explore and deliver on the idea, so you optimise for things that you can do.

When I'm conscious of this happening, there are three things I ask myself to begin to translate this experience into a positive one that biases towards action. It's important to start by examining the decision making drivers that are relevant to you.

  • Validate your rationale: Have we truly understood the problem and its impact/value? Have we boiled our understanding down to the real core of the problem?
  • Validate your strategy: Based on what we learn, should/does this change our strategic thinking? The strategy is there to help us make good decisions, but it should evolve in line with your understanding.
  • Embrace change: Identify what's holding you back, and ask what change is necessary to deal with those difficulties.

I'm writing this post because things are fresh in my mind. I'm working through a reluctant consensus situation with my team right now. Here's how things have played out so far after taking my own advice.

  • My team consistently receives feedback around a particular problem domain.
  • So far, we haven't prioritised that work. It doesn't align with our strategy. There's lots of other high value, well understood problems we've chosen to prioritise instead.
  • We've acknowledged, however, that we need to better validate the problem. It doesn't get prioritised because our understanding of it lacks rigour. 
  • We also acknowledged that we didn't invest time in understanding the problem because it sits in a blind spot in our strategy. We aren't making good decisions here because the strategy we're using to frame those decisions doesn't offer us a perspective on it. It's effectively ruled out by default, rather than based on solid reasoning.
  • We're currently taking action to focus on closing our knowledge gaps, starting with our strategic understanding. Over the coming weeks, we're building that understanding together. This will allow us to revisit the problem, explore it, and arrive at a conclusion with a more solid foundation.

This process is a challenging one for the team, and in particular for the PM. Why? It requires acknowledging a few things openly; "I missed something", "I'm making bad decisions", "our strategy isn't helping us", "my team is unhappy". This situation is, thankfully, not a common one, but it does come up often enough that we should be mindful of it. Every time I've dealt with this, I have found it to be challenging and a real drain on my confidence. 

The one thing I'd say to anyone reading this is that I have never once regretted taking this kind of action. It drives better outcomes for my customers and my team. It makes me a better, more thorough PM. When I look back on it, it's always positively, whether it changes our direction or not.

My challenge to you: are there any decisions your team made recently that achieved reluctant consensus and, if so, is there something you can do about it?