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When making a critical decision, is your team on the same page? Is it even in the same book? How do you get them there?

Recently I worked with a leadership team in a large software organization newly adopting Team Foundation Server, specifically for work tracking. In their planning session, they got stuck for several hours arguing about how to handle change control in their new tool. Compliance and audit were huge issues in their industry. The way they’d done it with previous homegrown tools wasn’t going to map precisely to how TFS works, which was a source of grave concern.

Should they customize the states and workflow with highly restrictive permissions, to programmatically assure that only specific authorized persons (different for each state) could move a work item into its next state? That level of customization and authorization was going to be extremely costly in terms of short-term setup, ongoing maintenance, future upgrades, and impact to teams’ day-to-day productivity. Or should they rely on process, Definitions of Done, and accountability in the daily standups, reviews, retrospectives, and the TFS work item history? Many were concerned that relying on humans would be error-prone and monitoring after-the-fact too risky.

Around and around they went, until it became clear that everyone was repeating the same arguments and no one was any more satisfied with the alternatives than when they started.

There’s a particular audience-participation technique that Steven uses when we present. In a training or a workshop it’s just an exercise; it feels almost like a parlor trick. But it suddenly dawned on me that it was exactly what this group needed.

“Guys, I feel like we’re stuck, and I’d like to try an exercise. I think you might hate it, but I’m dead serious and I’d like everyone to make an effort. Ready?

“Okay. We’ve been talking all morning about your compliance and audit environment, and the risk of work changing states without authorization. Seriously, I’m not being rhetorical, I want each one of you in your head to come up with a number that represents your best guess of what it would cost your company if one of your teams got this wrong.”

Groans. Protestations.

“I don’t care what basis you use for it. Fines, rework, lost productivity, corporate reputation, whatever you can think of, I don’t care, just pick a number. I know perfectly well you don’t really know, but I want everyone else to hear what’s in your head.

“Ready? Go. Yes, I’m serious. What’s your number? Yes, you have to say it out loud. Yes, all of you.”

$10,000.
$50,000.
$300,000.
$1 million.
$0!
$10 million!
A me-too for $1 million.
A me-too for $10 million.
A me-too for $50,000.

I didn’t really need to explain the value of the exercise at that point. The teammates, who knew each other quite well and had been debating this exact issue together for several hours, looked at each other as if they’d all just now met.

“Does it make more sense to you now why you seem so far apart? Look at that range! $10,000 to $10 million!”

The guy who’d said “$0” reminded me that he’d said $0.

“Do any of you have any idea which one of you is closer to right? How could you possibly know how much time and treasure is worth spending to prevent the risk from occurring?”

“Wait.” One of the $10 million club had just done some calculations. He turned to the guy who’d said $0. “Of all of us in this room, you’re the one closest to the audit process, and you’ve been pushing for tighter controls. WTF do you mean, ‘$0’?!”

And that’s when I went back to answering email. I don’t know their compliance regs at all, so I had nothing of substance to contribute, and it was clear they were finally arguing about the right things.

Sure enough, within half an hour they’d wrapped it up with a decision they all agreed they could live with. The next day, when we reviewed all the outstanding items to make sure we’d covered everything, they had no trouble shouting out an enthusiastic (and relieved) “DONE!” when I put a big green check-mark under “workflow that meets our compliance needs”!

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