As a career evolves, it’s common to spend an increasing percentage of time working with teams who are disagreeing and need to escalate to a tiebreaker. These situations often arise suddenly – say, a Slack message asking if you can hop into a meeting that is going south – so I’ve found it especially helpful to have a toolkit for quickly orienting myself.
Below is a quick playbook that I use whenever I’m pulled into a debate, particularly when a team is having trouble agreeing upon a solution:
- First, make sure that everyone is on the same page about their goals. Goals can be really simple: “We want to increase net retention by 15%.” Don’t move on until your goals are fully established.
- Next, ensure that everyone agrees on the problems or blockers. Similarly, don’t move forward until the problems they’re agreed upon.
- Only discuss solutions once you’re in lock-step on goals and problems.
- Bonus: make sure that everything is written down in a brief document.
The most important part of using this simple framework is to take each step sequentially. If you haven’t yet agreed upon your goals, don’t even try to figure out what’s blocking you. And if you haven’t agreed upon what blockers are in your way, trying to resolve them is like trying to fill out a crossword puzzle without reading the clues.
This system works because of how much easier it is to get on the same page about goals and problems than it is to agree on solutions. Solutions and egos are easily intertwined – “my idea is best, and if you disagree with my proposed solution you’re implying that I’m dumb.” Goals and problems are much more objective, and easier to transact on in an egoless way. Once you have a shared foundation, you can navigate the trickier steps of finding solutions that will work.
The Framework in Action
If you’re a product manager who hasn’t had a sales executive (CRO, VP Sales) try to get a “great idea” onto your roadmap, you’re either lying or the luckiest PM in history. The problem with these escalations is that the goals or problems that the sales team is seeing are usually left unspoken:
- What they say: “We need to integrate the product with Salesforce.”
- The problem they’re fixing: “Our largest deals are getting blocked because we don’t have a Salesforce integration, which is hampering our enterprise close rate.”
- The goal they’re aiming at: “Our goal is to win the largest enterprise deals to solidify our position for our next fundraise.”
In isolation, this solution statement is difficult to reckon with. Why should we integrate with Salesforce instead of executing on other parts of our roadmap? What does this actually get us? It’s easy for this conversation to devolve into madness – “you don’t know what the customers actually want” or “this isn’t on the roadmap so we’re not doing it” or “competitor X has this feature so we really need it.”
This discussion is much more tractable when reframed in terms of problems and goals:
- Start by aligning on the solution – do we actually need to win these very large accounts to raise our next round? Maybe it’s possible that we can hit our growth targets without these large accounts, or that we can grow into them in 2-3 years when the market has had more time to mature.
- Dive deep on the problems: Do we have evidence that our largest deals are actually being blocked due to lack of an integration? Probably, or we can get it easily. Is this the biggest problem for large deals, or just one of a few issues? A thoughtful discussion or supporting evidence can actually answer this question.
- From there, it’s significantly more straightforward to deal with the actual proposed solution of whether this new Salesforce integration makes sense.
My #1 warning sign that this framework will be helpful is seeing people with a track record of good decisions unable to get on the same page about a plan. Smart people are logical, and if a bunch of really sharp people can’t get on the same page (or can’t disagree and commit), they’re almost certainly misaligned on goals or problems.
My favorite part of using this framework is that it’s really simple. It doesn’t require any kind of whiteboarding, brainstorming, or workshop. Just work backwards – if people are disagreeing on solutions, make sure they’re on the same page about their problems first. If people disagree on their problems, make sure they agree on their goals. Whenever you’re called into a situation where smart people just can’t seem to agree, try this playbook out whether you’re on a team, running a team, or just consulting on a problem.