Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 23, Issue 45;   November 8, 2023: Asymmetric Group Debate

Asymmetric Group Debate


Group debates at work can be difficult when the domains of expertise of participants don't overlap by much. Communicating is possible, though, if we believe in our shared goals and if we tackle the hard parts without an audience.
A civilized group debate at work

A civilized group debate at work.

A technical debate is a form of workplace conversation in which participants try to reach consensus about a resolution to a question that has significant technical dimensions. For example, the group might be weighing whether or not to include a specific capability in an upcoming release of an existing software product. They'll need to estimate the quantity of work required. And that is fundamentally a technical question.

Some technical debates are actually components of debates of broader scope. In the example above, questions relating to resource availability have important political components. Market considerations also play a role. When debates draw on a wide enough array of different issues, it's common for no single person to have mastery of all issues sufficient to support a decision. A group is necessary. The technical debate is just a component of the larger group debate.

The fundamental problem with group debate

However, in group debate, the level of mastery of any given participant varies across the knowledge domains that play roles in the debate. Mastery is in this way asymmetric. Reaching consensus in asymmetric group debate is tricky business.

The fundamental problem is that the final resolution will be unlikely to exactly match the viewpoint of any single debate participant. Typically, resolutions of asymmetric group debates require each participant to accept elements that they once regarded as "undesirable," though they might employ the word "crazy" more frequently than "undesirable."

A simplified example

Consider In group debate, the level of mastery of any
given participant varies across the knowledge
domains that play roles in the debate
an asymmetric group debate between two people. One party to the debate, named T, has superior mastery of the technical issues. The other party, named P, has superior mastery of the political issues. Since we're assuming that a debate is underway, we can consider that T and P disagree on one or more points. And since T has superior technical mastery, we can assume that on technical grounds, T's position is more nearly correct. But T's partner in debate, P, who has superior political mastery, most likely has a position that better accounts for the political needs of the organization.

Both T and P will do well in trying to reach consensus if they employ three guidelines.

Respect your debate partner's viewpoint
Both debate partners have valid points, but their perspectives probably won't prevail unchanged in the resolution they ultimately reach. It's likely that some version of each of their respective viewpoints will survive if they each can accommodate some elements of their debate partner's position. For example, P's approach probably is incorrect in some technical factors, while T's approach probably fails to account for important political factors.
Enter your partner's reference frame
Both debate partners will more easily agree to modify their viewpoints if they understand the benefits a given modification provides. One way to make this clear to their partners involves a variant of the case method. For example, P can create a case that is both highly plausible and very damaging to T's ability to achieve objectives T holds dear. The case should demonstrate why P's perspective must be taken into account. If T does the same for P, the two can then collaborate to devise a hybrid resolution that addresses all concerns.
Remove the audience
Part of the problem of adjusting one's position is the need to explain it to one's own constituency. That process is less confrontational if P and T take the audience out of the picture. Conducting their negotiations privately can make accommodating their partner's concerns easier. And P and T can work together to devise each other's constituency explanations.

Last words

In seeking resolutions to asymmetric group debates, a risk arises. That risk is the tendency to seek permanent resolutions when all that's really needed is a resolution good enough for right now. When P & T seek permanent, all-encompassing solutions, the search can become fruitless because it's too constrained. Or the solution they find can be so complex that it's impractical. In today's dynamic markets, seeking permanent solutions to most problems is a fool's errand. I hope we can all agree on that. Go to top Top  Next issue: Exhibitionism and Conversational Narcissism at Work: II  Next Issue

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info

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This article in its entirety was written by a human being. No machine intelligence was involved in any way.

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